A San Francisco treasure and an enduring icon in the local nightlife scene, Juanita MORE! has always been more than just a drag queen. But defining what and who she is, as a person and a persona, requires a thorough look back at her, to-date, 30-year career which hasn't been undertaken until now.
On Friday, the San Francisco Arts Commission unveils its exhibit Juanita: 30 Years of MORE! at its gallery inside the Herbst Theater building. It's an impressive, if not totally exhaustive look at Ms. MORE!'s collection of art, portraits of herself by dozens of artists, Pride party gowns, awards, hats, and even jewelry — a unique sort of retrospective about a drag artist and tireless LGBTQ community fundraiser who has become a living work of art herself.
But if you suggest any of this is about ego — or even that the exhibition is about her — Juanita is quick to push back.
"It's never really been about me," she tells SFist. "I'm just the vehicle."
In statements about the show, which runs from September 30 to November 12, Juanita says, " I've never claimed complete ownership of Juanita's realization or activism," and "I've been the vehicle that brought her to life through the work of many talented artists, non-profits and a community I consider my chosen family." And she insists that this exhibit is mostly about these other artists.
But there are things, like Juanita's ongoing series of "Naked Dinner Parties" in San Francisco and L.A. — which are documented in a collection of 10 photos in the so-called "Smut Room" of the exhibit — that are like performance pieces themselves that she can take sole credit for. And her drag performances, which are few and far between these days, are her own work as well.
"I am most definitely in control of my image," Juanita tells SFist, adding again that she "consider[s] it a great honor to collaborate with many talented artists."
But, when pressed, she says, "To answer your question about me taking credit, I am the boss."
The start of the exhibit is a recreation of the walls of Juanita's Tenderloin studio apartment, which are themselves an archive of Pride party posters and the various portraits artists have done of Juanita the drag icon over the years.
Artist and curator of the exhibit Marcel Pardo Ariza tells us, "I'm thinking a lot these days about inter-generational dialogue, and archives." Pardo Ariza says that preserving the "archive" of Juanita's career was at the heart of this show, and wanting to make sure that people can see the art and the person that come with the persona.
"Juanita’s practice embodies so many things we need more of right now — collective care, bringing people together, valuing and uplifting artists' work, centering pleasure, friendship, and collaboration," Pardo Ariza says.
Some of that pleasure and community has come in the form of parties, and Juanita has hosted hundreds. Visitors to the exhibit can get a sense of the nightlife aspect via QR codes on the exhibition cards for each of the dresses, which lead you to the photo galleries from the party where she wore the dress.
And perhaps the biggest part of that archive, the dresses designed exclusively by Mr. David (a.k.a. Glamamore) since the two began collaborating one night in 1992, is on display only in microcosm here.
"This is only about one half of a percent of the dress archive," Juanita says, pointing to one fantastic dress on a mannequin that had recently been living in a garbage bag.
Longtime fans of Juanita will remember the fashion show of Mr. David Couture that took place in May 2016 at the de Young Museum, which showed off a bigger selection of the 3,000+ looks he has designed for Juanita in three decades. But here, there are just a few greatest hits from Pride parties past — including the pink tulle number below with matching hat, that has a Gone With the Wind-meets-1950s Oscars vibe.
"That took 600 yards of tulle," Juanita says.
Juanita MORE! took her drag name from a now mostly forgotten but Oscar-nominated Black character actress whose career peaked in the mid-20th Century, Juanita Moore. But when asked whether the Old Hollywood-esque glamour gowns by Mr. David made the drag persona or vice versa, the answer is a bit more complicated.
"In the beginning, Mr. David and I created the 'shape' of Juanita," she says. "Naturally, we wanted her voluptuous — as that visual conjured up another vision of my last name."
And Juanita is never short on praise for her longtime collaborator and couturier.
"The most fantastic part of Mr. David designing for me is his consideration of how I want to feel and where I may be going — he even considers if I'll be sitting, standing, or walking up a flight of stairs. That attention to detail truly makes him the most creative person I have ever had in my life," she says.
"Juanita: 30 Years of MORE!" opens Friday, September 30, at the SFAC Main Gallery, 401 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 126. Opening reception 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The show runs until November 12. On October 6 at 7 p.m. there will be an evening of drag performances "by Juanita MORE! lookalikes." And on October 28 at 7 there will also be a Halloween birthday bash as the gallery, with costumes required.