by Jefferson Ellison. Published April 07, 2021.
Today, my fellow Ashevillians, I am lit up with the righteous indignation of a true conversationalist. In our fair city, on the corner of Mildred and Haywood in the “up-and-coming” (read: gentrified) West Asheville, a mural of two gay icons, Dolly Parton and RuPaul, has caused quite a stir.
Initially, there was positive dialogue around what it means to elevate people who are heavily associated with the gay community–overall, we’re all on the same page about the importance of that. But the commissioners of Gus Cutty’s mural are hairdressers, not priests, so I’m sure they cared more about the wigs than the social commentary. In general, Asheville is pretty liberal, and who doesn’t love a good Judy.
The real discussion was around the addition of RuPaul. Many saw this addition as a siren call to the LGBT+ community, but I had my suspicions. So I did some digging and amongst the myriad photos of the mural–almost as if they were begging for the attention they received–is a BLM hashtag. Trust me, I can smell opportunism from a mile away.
One could argue that a beauty salon, owned by white women who can probably count their Black customers on one hand, using RuPaul as a sign of support is idiotic at best and toxic at worst. But I, my dear readers, am not that petty. I want to focus more on the discourse that happened under the AVL Today coverage of the mural reveal.
To be clear, the ladies over at AVL Today are all lovely and amazing, and I consider them friends. This has absolutely nothing to do with them. That being said, because they have such a broad reach, and they focus a lot on engaging with and hearing from the community, it is natural that their coverage receives a certain amount of conversation. Under the post where the AVL Today editors praise the mural addition–which is lovely, Gus Cutty is a true talent and an Asheville star–comments applauded artistry of the piece, while also commenting on the subjects of the art itself.
Some of the comments that stuck out most for me were in the thread following a comment that encouraged people to come to God and turn away from their sinful ways (an invitation that I’m sure was heartfelt and ripe with the love of our lord and savior, Black Jesus). Another was a comment about RuPaul, his husband’s business involving land, and the rumors that they are also involved in fracking.
In regards to the homophobic comment, the patrons of the mural were quite vulgar in their response. Having said that, they still managed to leave room for commenters to practice religious freedom–Vaya con Dios. However, when it came to their response to comments around the complicated story that is RuPaul and his environmental impact, and Dolly Parton and her checkered past (and present, because... Dollywood), there seemed to be equal amounts of disrespect without any of that same held space.
At face value, I’m not sure that it’s ever a good idea for a White business, that serves White customers, to commission a White painter to do work that centers Black bodies. It’s not because white people can’t paint brown skin, but because I’m not sure who can protect Black agency in this scenario. It’s clear to me from the way the salon engaged with the public, that the owners of Beauty Parade were seeking quick applause and are comfortable using Black bodies and Black narratives as a shield for their White feminism. If it weren’t so cliche, it’d be offensive.
There are plenty of people both in the news and on Twitter who have questions about RuPaul and his property ownership. It’s in the zeitgeist and is rightfully fodder for public consumption (it was literally on NPR). Furthermore, the purpose of art, in general, is to be seen and to be commented on. To slap a giant piece of art into the public domain and be upset that people have complicated thoughts around complicated figures who have been in the public eye for decades… feels dense. And while I can excuse a certain level of ignorance, arrogance is never welcomed in a conversation involving Blackness–at least not with me.
To frame comments around public figures and the nature of art, as “cancel culture” is to usurp others’ agency and position yourself as being so powerful that you are worthy of being canceled. To dismiss community members’ thoughts simply because they force you to reflect on your intentions and the haste in which you select your icons, is to say to the public that you’re not interested in community building. You are just looking for praise; and of all the things I have to offer you, that ain’t one of them.
Cancel Culture is real, that’s true, but it’s rooted in accountability to the public. So while I don’t think anyone was trying to cancel this business (in fact, none of the commentaries included the company the last time I reviewed the threads), I’m willing to accept your flawed premise and continue to prove my point. If you do not want the public’s opinion, keep your art inside your home. Because no matter the intent or the impact the facts remain the same: A white-owned business, set-up in a historically diverse neighborhood, used Black iconography performed by a White artist to sell White women a wash-and-go. Now THAT’S complicated...