Using bold and unapologetic digital illustration techniques, Belen Cao created otherworldly portraits of extravagant – very fashion – drag characters for DiversityNOW 2016. Belen’s entry is about opening our minds to different forms of cultural, broadening our perceptions of beauty and freedom from societal restraints. The opulence and exaggeration of colour and form are excessively appealing and capture the fullness of life of a marginalised culture, Belen uses fashion illustration as a timely tool for social change.

Using fashion and illustration as a tool for social change, can you explain which issues you have highlighted?

With my project I have intended to convey the idea that all of us can be as beautiful as we wish, both inside and outside. Frequently, the way that others perceive us is a reflection of how we express our personality through our appearance, gestures, movements and acts. The way we display our beauty is as important as knowing how to appropriately combine colours and accessories. It is easy to perceive when people are happy and their life is complete, as the way we age denotes the sort of life we have lived and the contentment we have experienced.

Who or what inspired your marvelous extravagant drag characters?

My main inspiration was Nicolás Grijalba, a wonderful lecturer from my University in Madrid, whose entire existence encompasses the fullness and satisfaction that I was referring in the previous answer. He was a great mentor and an absolute literary and artistic inspiration. Because of him, I could never regret taking a BA in Journalism instead of Fine Arts. As he says himself, he and his colleagues are ‘pure art, darling’!

Secondly, the fashion designers and their fabulous teams, who conceive amazing garments that perplex us, sculptures that come to life on the catwalk and works of art that excite every fan of the discipline. Finally, my everlasting devotion to extravagant make up and bright colours: reds, pinks, oranges and purples.

You quoted Cuban Poet José Martí: ‘Be cultured to be free’, can you expand on this? What does this mean to you?

As I declared in my manifesto, with my Illustrations I intend to convey a message against the marginalisation of this part of society which has existed, at least in this country, since the 1880s.

I see the discipline of Fashion as an extremely powerful weapon to change people’s minds, to make wider points of view and perspectives about the social conventionalisms that we have inherited from our ancestors. Fashion has the possibility to reach considerable spectrum of the population and by using it, might be able to influence in the way that some people think.

To me, the maxim of the Cuban poet José Martí, ‘be cultured to be free’ is an assertion of the influence that culture has on the promotion of tolerance. This is a simple and forthright affirmation that has influenced my thinking, my art, my writing, my way of seeing life and, in general, my day-to-day existence for many years. In this context we could say that the more cultured we are, the more open we are to accept realities or perspectives that differ from ours. In this line of thought, disciplines such as Fashion, Theatre, Cinema and even Sports carry a moral responsibility, and models, designers, actors and athletes play an important part as ‘role models’ in society.

Fashion creatives have the power to change behaviour and trends. What would you like to see happen to encourage culture move towards a more accepting future?

In general terms I would like to witness the gap between social classes minimised and for us to all enjoy the same chances. In the Twentieth Century we have witnessed an important process of cultural democratisation due to the access to education by all social classes and this lays the foundation for acceptance and tolerance required for the more accepting future that you refer in the question.

I am referring to the principle that above all, we are people, and all people are equal and our main weapon to reach equality will always be the education and culture. We are all the same, regardless of social class, sex or religious beliefs and we have the right and duty to help the rest to understand this: Fashion is a powerful weapon to achieve it.

“BLURRED LIFE: SHADOWS IN THE DAYLIGHT, ENIGMA AFTER DUSK” is the title of your project. We’re intrigued to know more?

The title I gave to my project was inspired by the book I used to document my research process: ‘Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957’, brilliantly written by Matt Houlbrook. This book portraits the experiences of this part of the society in London of that period through the eyes of Cyril L., who became queer since he came to the city.

London, for Cyril, meant boundless opportunities to explore his newfound sexuality. But his freedom was limited: he was soon arrested, simply for being in a club frequented by homosexual men.

My title reflects the lifestyle they are obliged to choose, because of the rejection they face from the rest of society: Hence it is blurred, as it cannot be clear. They are shadows in the daylight, as they have to hide their true identity; when your acts cannot reflect your personality and your true self you loose an important part of your essence, becoming a shadow of yourself. As I read in the book and witnessed in real life, the only time they can really express their true passions 100% is in the dark -when nobody is looking- which turns them into enigmatic and marvellous creatures with a glow of mystery.

Interview: Elli Weir

Illustration: Belen Cao