Project Nunway's Fashion Feast
by Jim Provenzano
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has established itself as one of the most fun venues for arts-related nightlife events. Exhibit opening parties draw hundreds of patrons. One of the most wildly vibrant live shows celebrates its fifth incarnation as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence present Project Nunway, the amazingly creative couture fashion show, Saturday, November 2.
Joél Barraquiel Tan, aka Sister Baba Ganesh, is heading up this year's Project Nunway. He's also been Yerba Buena Center for the Art's Director of Community Engagement since 2004, and a published poet and book editor. This is his fifth time organizing the couture extravaganza, which he said, "could really only have been born at YBCA."
The original Project Nunway in 2009 was part of the residency for the Sisters' 30th anniversary. The Mission Street arts center hosted exhibits, and the first fashion event.
"The irony is that while its recognized as a take-off on the TV show Project Runway, it's really inspired by the strange fashion show in the Fellini film Roma, Tan explained.
"The show is about the power of drag, the real power of drag, not just 'I'm pretty.' Nunway is about inspiration and about making and creating new works, and it has inspired so many different kinds of makers, with a wild variety of interpretations on a theme."
"There are so many different kinds of minds around this," Tan said, who also revealed a special surprise. "Given this year's theme [Dissident Futures], we attracted a group of robotics engineers, so a new non-human Sister Isis, a mechanical nun, will debut at the show."
If that sounds like a Burning Man art project, that's because several of the participating artists are playa-familiar.
"Burners, indie fashion designers, all kinds of artists" are volunteering their skills, said Tan. "The artists and the Sisters not only develop a deep relationship, but a community."
With an expansive nine- to twelve-month development period, both communities have benefited. "Our volunteer base has grown exponentially, and we've even groomed more new Sisters," Tan added.
While the events are aimed at visualizing the San Francisco Sisters' message, it's expanded exponentially, with replicated events in five other cities with more starting next year.
"We just got back from the Los Angeles production, which was huge and fantastic," said Tan. "What's exciting is to see how this simple idea is replicable and compelling, not only to Sisters, but designers and an audience of potential new younger supporters."
Aside from being a Sister, Tan has long been a community builder in the local arts world. Tan noted that a pop-up exhibit of prior years' costumes will also be on display, and there may be plans for more exhibits of the unique works.
"As a curator, this is the best of its kind," said Tan. "It defies notions of the quality of contemporary art."
Along with the fashion show, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will also create an altar in the shape of a larger-than-life Angel of the Future Dead to commemorate the fact that we are actually the dead of the future. Reclaimed objects of wood and other materials will create a haunting and evocative future memorial.
With a selection of recycled materials, the Sisters' couture makeovers have ranged from environmental live flora headpieces to industrial tubing and tires. As the Sisters stroll the runway in their fascinating outfits, patrons will enjoy live music and DJ sets from Planet Booty, Honey Mahogany and SpaceKraft.
Co-MCs Sister Roma and Jane Wiedlin (of The Go-Gos) will corral the bounty of beautiful fashion. Guest judges include RuPaul's Drag Race finalist Pandora Boxx.
The after-party promises even more glamour and spectacle. Guests are asked to dress in their most funky fashion-forward or even scifi, steampunk or Burning Man-style garb. Cocktails will be mixed with special thematic flavors.
Some of the couturier Sisters and their collaborators shared advance notes on their creations. Sister Peghan Ritual Nutsack of Guerneville California, with designers Jon and DizGlobal Warming, are creating a gown that visualizes rising tides and melting ice caps.
"As a non-driving human, I try to reduce my carbon footprint," said Sister Peghan in a press statement. "My piece is a reflection of what may be a possible future for mankind. We came from the sea. Is it hard to believe that we may one day have to return?"
The Sisters have served as royal court jesters who often stirred the ire of traditional religions by poking fun at their pomposity, all while raising funds for LGBT communities since the 1970s. An arch parody of church "royalty" will be visualized in the outfit created by Sister Zsa Zsa and her team, which includes designers Souza and Clausen. Their pinnacle work will be a multi-pointed bronze-colored headpiece that borrows from traditional priest garb, with hints of orthodox church icons and architecture.
"Formal clerical wear has some sort of magic power to seduce both believers and non-believers that the person wearing it has a direct connection to the mystical world," Zsa Zsa explained. "The clergy knows that fact and uses it to exploit and control their flock. Ambitious, career-driven women in the clergy will become priests and submissive men will become nuns. This look represents a vision of gender-bending attention-grabbing clergy of the future."
And although most of the Project Nunway events have been held at the YBCA Forum (Beatbox and a tent in the AIDS Memorial Grove were also host venues), Tan envisions yet more changes for the annual spectacle.
"It takes more than a year and a hundred-plus volunteers to organize," Tan said. "It's exciting, but as we produce this each year, it can be exhausting. For a nonprofit that's made up of a bunch of anarchist queers, it's difficult to maintain the gala model, with all the contracts and unions."
Tan suggested that a future Project Nunway may hearken back to the drag tribe's original roots that incorporated street theatre and guerrilla tactics. He mentioned a possible outdoor event as a sort of flash mob or rave. "I want to give other Sister-producers another model, so it can be sustainable," he said.
For now, the multiple events will take place at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
So, for a fab night of fashion that would make Miranda Priestly choke on her steak, enjoy the futuristic fun party and fabulous couture at Project Nunway.
Project Nunway V: Dissident Futures is Saturday, November 2, 7pm, with an after-party 9pm-12am. Tickets range from $99 (VIP seating, complimentary cocktails, souvenir photo, admission to the Nov. 1 dress rehearsal); Party Pak $51.50 (Reserved seating and two drink tickets), to general admission $20.13 (Festival seating/standing room). YBCA Forum, 701 Mission St. www.ybca.org/project-nunway