California’s desolate Mojave Desert may be the setting for “Lust in the Dust,” a new photography exhibition that just opened at Epiphany Center for the Arts in Chicago’s West Loop. But the documentary project’s origin story starts here in Chicago, with a local photographer, a TV-series-turned-cult-classic and a burlesque performer with an 8-foot python.
In the late 1990s, Chicago photographer Joe Gallo, now 70, was inspired to shoot a series of portraits inspired by the HBO television series Carnivále. This led him to the Beat Kitchen on Belmont Avenue, where a burlesque performer known as Cherish ran a show called Belmont Burlesque that also starred her 8-foot python.
Gallo started documenting various burlesque performances across the city, and through those connections, he was introduced to the famed Miss Exotic World Museum, a retreat center and archive situated in Helendale, Calif., on a former chicken ranch.
Early in the 1990s, burlesque performers used the property as a way station between performances in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But eventually it became something of a pilgrimage site where veteran and fledgling performers convened to celebrate their craft and the home of the annual Miss Exotic World pageant, featuring the who’s who of the burlesque world.
Gallo traveled to document the Miss Exotic World pageant twice at the Helendale location, as well as when the museum eventually found a home in Las Vegas. His photographs — displaying through March in a converted West Side church that is now a cultural venue — transport the viewer to what feels like an alternate dimension, where glamorous dancers in sequined costumes pose and shimmy against an otherworldly and arid landscape.
Alongside Gallo’s photos, the exhibition showcases a set of ceramic and mixed media skulls by the artist Marilyn Artus. As a former burlesque producer, Artus created these sculptures to pay tribute to the divas who innovated the art form. A burlesque performance on Feb. 17 will also give visitors the chance to witness performers in action.
Gallo told WBEZ contributor Andrew Meriwether the backstory behind five photos in the exhibition. Below you’ll find those stories in the photographer’s own words.
Sit on Your Hands - Circa 2003/2005
“I am a little lower than eye level, and I’m following the women kind of going down the runway because they had a walk-by part of their performance. And there was a shed that they were walking in front of — kind of like a pool house — and that guy had set up a chair on top of the shed. I don’t know if he was a Dixie Evans partner [Dixie Evans is the performer who founded the museum], but he was somebody who was significant within the Miss Exotic World ranch camp. And he just sat up there the whole show, just like that on his hands. Every time I looked, he was up there.”
Lust in the Dust - Circa 2003/2005
“That little suitcase, that’s what caught my eye. Basically, she had finished her performance and was walking back to the dressing room. And she just had a look about her. So I just stopped her and I said, ‘Hey, would you mind if I took your photo? Could you walk towards that Winnebago thing?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’ And then when I was going through and editing them I thought that’s really cool because it looks like a different kind of story. It looked more like a film clip or movie poster. And I thought, ‘Well, what would the title of that movie be?’ And “Lust in the Dust” just kind of evolved out of that.”
Glam - Circa 2003/2005
“That’s probably one the most posed pictures that I took during those two times out there. She just —as many of those performers do – knows what she looks like on the other side of the camera. And it’s great, because she just threw those poses out. This is one of several. She threw her arm back and took a puff on that big cigarette. And it was like, this is great, you know? And once you start, it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Bambi the Mermaid - Circa 2003/2005
“What I enjoyed about [Miss Exotic World] is that everybody thinks ‘Oh, they’re strippers’ and it’s like, no, they’re not really strippers. They have a concept and it’s a kind of a reveal. There’s a lot of drama and there’s an enormous amount of humor in what they’re doing. Every one of them has a tongue-in-cheek turn within their performances. And getting the audience to laugh is as important for them as the oohs and ahhs that they might get for what they can do.”
Miss Exotic World Fans - Circa 2003/2005
“So a lot of the people that are amongst that group under that trellis were other performers. Like the guy with the fez was actually an emcee for one of the girl’s acts. And then there was just an interesting array of different people who were becoming fans of the new age of burlesque. The whole thing was kind of quietly advertised. I don’t know what kind of publicity they were pushing out to get crowds. But there would literally be several 100 people there. It was a weekend, so there were a couple of days of workshops and skill classes for the performers. A little bit of choreography, you know, how to dance, how you do all this stuff. And then a lot of it was like how to make your costumes because they did all that. You have to realize that up at that point this is all self-financed. So women were doing their own makeup, they were doing their own hair, they were buying and making their own costumes, and choreographing their own dances.”
If you go: “Lust in the Dust” runs through March 23 at the Epiphany Center for the Arts, 201 S. Ashland Ave. The show is free and open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Daytime visitation requires emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment.
Andrew Meriwether is an audio producer and journalist based in Chicago.