“This is their home”: Dustin Thierry on Europe’s Black queer diaspora

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Born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, a former Dutch colony, Dustin Thierry moved to the Netherlands on his own aged just 14. Opulence, his ongoing and most recognised project, is raw, intoxicating and quietly poignant: an ode to his young polysexual brother, who had dreamed of following Thierry to Europe before taking his own life in 2016. “His suicide inspired me to dive into a world that could have been his,” the artist told British Journal of Photography last year. “A tribute not only to him, but to all people of Afro-Caribbean descent who aren’t free to be who they are.”

Approaching its members in earnest in 2018, Thierry secured intimate access to the enchanting world of European ballroom culture: rich underground celebrations of LGBTQI+ identity, where lavish displays of fashion and fervour meet a deep and mutual understanding of what it means to be ostracized from society. “This is their home,” says Thierry, who won Portrait of Humanity 2019 with a standout image from the series. “I was a guest at first, but through trust I was allowed in. 99 per cent of the work is about communication, trust and representation.” 

Opulence, Thaynah Vineyard at the ‘We Are The Future And The Future Is Fluid’
Ball organised by Legendary Marina 007 and Mother Amber Vineyard. Body painting
by visual artist Airich. Amsterdam, 2018. ©Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Wolkoff and Wickid from the House of Garçon with the Grand Prize for
Tag Team All American Runway at The United States of Africa Ball Pt.II. ©Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Mother Honeysha West outside at ‘The Olympics Ball’. July 2019. ©Dustin Thierry

Now on show at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, until 04 April 2021, Opulence is first and foremost a project about pride, and the restorative power of community: the steadfast families we build for ourselves in the face of adversity. In delicate black and white shots taken across Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, and Paris, Thierry’s subjects appear otherworldly — solemn, mystical, defiant — and yet whisper, too, of an understated melancholy. While the Netherlands boasts many pro-LGBTQI+ policies, the artist explains that “Black people from the former colonies and the Caribbean islands are increasingly racialised and objectified,” making for a hostile environment when the identities intersect.

Crucially, within his practice, Thierry has said that real social justice comes from creating work with people who have suffered, rather than about them. And therein lies his inimitable magic: his ability to spark love, reverence and healing between artist, subject and viewer alike. “The project has changed me in many ways,” says Thierry. “I hope that the viewers who recognize themselves on a deeper level in these photographs feel represented, seen and properly acknowledged.”

Opulence is on show at Van Abbemuseum, Netherlands, until 04 April 2021

Enter Portrait of Humanity 2021 (Deadline 22 October 2020 – 23:59 UK Time)

Opulence ©Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Fetsayy 007 at the ‘We Are The Future And The Future Is Fluid’ Ball
organised by Legendary Marina 007 and Mother Amber Vineyard. Amsterdam, 2018. ©Dustin Thierry
Opulence, f.l.t.r.: 007, 007, Athena Ebony, 007 at the ‘Twinyx Birthday Mini-Ball
Vogue Edition’. ©Dustin Thierry
Opulence, Enki LaDurée after walking the category; ‘Butch Queen Face’ at the
Cleopatra Ball Pt.II. ©Dustin Thierry

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.