Adrienne Raquel is a photographer known for her graphic, feminine photographs of women, including herself. She rose to fame on Instagram with her minimalist and sexy aesthetic, and she now photographs the likes of Selena Gomez and Lizzo.
Now, she has an entirely new project on a famed strip club, Club Onyx in Houston. Raquel initially came up with the idea after visiting the club in 2018 and dreamed of coming back to capture the dancers in all their strength and glory in a candid and intimate way. She portrays these women as complex individuals who are hardworking, talented, and extremely good at their jobs.
The project brought Raquel back to her childhood self, watching music videos after school in the age of the “video vixen.”
“I revisited numerous films and music videos from the late '90s and '00s for visual inspiration, and watching these videos honestly gave me a sense of nostalgia," she said. "It took me back to the days where I would rush home from school to finish my homework just so that I could watch the video countdown on 106 & Park.”
We asked her a few questions about her work with ONYX, which is on view at Fotografiska starting April 22, and about the strip club in Black culture and the popular imagination, with films like Zola and Hustlers winning critical acclaim.
How did you come to photograph ONYX?
I've always found strip culture to be intriguing — everything from the confidence that the entertainers exude, the money, and the overall talent and athleticism it takes to perform. I initially came up with the inspiration to shoot the ONYX series after visiting the club back in 2018. I was intrigued by the way they moved around the space, and how they interacted with men, and how they interacted with one another. I made a promise to myself that once I "made it" as a photographer/director, that I would return and document the women that perform in the club. My goal with ONYX is to highlight these women, center their beauty, and [photograph] them from an authentic point of view, during real-life moments. I believe these women are worthy of recognition. Ultimately, I want to portray a narrative of femininity, sisterhood, self-transformation, and female empowerment amongst the entertainers at Club Onyx. This series is a continuation from my usual work. I feel as though the imagery from ONYX evokes the signature vibrant, glossy, visual style that is present in most of my work. This series also heroes women as the central focus, which is a common thread in most of my work.
Why do you think the fascination with strip club culture is having a renaissance now, looking at major films like Zola and Hustlers?
Strip clubs have always been relevant and instrumental in driving culture — especially within the African American community and hip-hop. However, I do believe that strip club culture has undergone a sort of renaissance within today's mainstream pop culture. Women's rights, sexuality, and female empowerment have been at the forefront of a lot of conversations over the last decade, and have essentially been more vocalized and heard. Strip clubs and exotic dancing are not nearly as much of a taboo as they were in the past. I believe this is due to more cultural acceptance and portrayal within the mainstream media. In the past, you had to physically step into strip clubs in order to experience and get a true idea of the energy, the women, and the lifestyle. It was almost like this hidden world where..."You had to be there. If you know, you know." Now, we have films and television series that, while fictional, give viewers an inside look into some of happenings and the lifestyles of the dancers that work in these spaces both on and beyond the performance stage. Mainstream musicians and reality TV personalities have also been transparent about their past experiences as strippers — and have since evolved into these mega superstars. Social media has played a pivotal role in this as well. With apps such as Instagram and platforms like OnlyFans, strip culture has also become more visible and widely accessible.
What was it like going back and watching music videos when you were researching this project? I'm also curious if you had a favorite video or dancer.
Absolutely! I revisited numerous films and music videos from the late ’90s and ’00s for visual inspiration. Watching these videos honestly gave me a sense of nostalgia. It took me back to the days where I would rush home from school to finish my homework just so that I could watch video countdown on 106 & Park. Or the times when my cousins and I would stay up late at night on the weekends and watch BET: Uncut videos. I remember watching these videos, singing along and being in awe of what I saw on the television.
What was something you learned from watching and researching these videos, that was different at Club Onyx?
The music videos from the 2000s and the women that graced them were the epitome of Black culture — a representation of wealth, power, and sex appeal. What I loved most about these videos was the fact that these videos placed an emphasis on Black beauty. Vixens were the ultimate eye candy and front and center throughout Black culture at the time — which I believe helped further push Black beauty into mainstream media. I also loved the way the directors visually treated these videos. These videos were undeniably alluring and fantasy driven — blinging with saturated hues, vivid lighting, and hints of afrofuturism. Those are the same type of vibes that I wanted to re-create with ONYX. However, one way that Club Onyx differed from the videos is quite simple. Onyx is a real club with real women, in the real world. It's not as illusionary and as glamorous as the imagery and ideals that are often portrayed in music videos. I had the opportunity to experience the club from a "real life" point of view. At Onyx, I encountered real women, who possess all types of beauty. Everything is not always perfect. There isn't money raining out of the ceiling at all hours of the night. And not every entertainer wants to entertain every single night. There are some nights where the club is slow, and there are others where the club is so packed that you can barely walk through the crowd. I really got an opportunity to experience the true unpredictability of the club.
One of the things that stands out the most in your work is the femininity and sexuality in the photographs — can you talk about how these themes in your work have helped you discover yourself?
Feminity and sexuality are definitely two themes that I feel have always been ever present in my work. My photographs have always seemed to revolve around the concept of womanhood and inner self. Growing up, I was very quiet, awkward, and shy-natured. I was a bit of a late bloomer as a teenager and it took me a while to really step into my confidence and feel comfortable in my own skin. When I initially began shooting, I was fascinated with the idea of exploring alternate, hidden versions of myself. I was also drawn to the concept of creating my own world and essentially telling my own narratives through photos. I would dress up, put on makeup, and photograph myself in various scenarios according to how I felt at the moment. The portraits that I created at that time revolved around concepts of identity, alter ego, self-reflection, and sensuality. Many of my portraits at the time depicted the woman that I wanted to be. She was edgy, confident, sexy, and she had an attitude — which was a complete contrast from my true personality at that time. In a lot of the portraits, I'd photograph myself with an appearance and persona that I wouldn't normally have in real life. These images would be moody. I'd often wear all black clothing, with sultry make=up, and at most times I'd be "fake smoking." I equated this with sex appeal and confidence at that time. I thought it was bold and badass. And I think it was through these images that I realized that I can be sexy too. It was really an eye-opening time for me. Now I strive to bring this same energy to the work that I create now.
I love your nails and your photographs of your hands/hands in general — it's like Stieglitz's photos of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands. It made me think about your inspirations photographically. Who inspired you when you were younger and who do you look up to as a photographer today?
Thank you! I've always found something so special about hands! I find them attractive and I think they are an integral part of our bodies that often go unnoticed and overlooked. I love the work of Guy Bourdin! The moment I discovered his work, I immediately fell in love with the way that he photographed women, as well as his use of vibrant colors and exaggerated camera angles. There was a level of surrealism to his work that I loved. His photographs are intriguing. They are provocative, naturally seductive, and glamorous — and every element in his photos is so perfectly placed. Guy was an artist that also highlighted body parts with fragmented portraits that focused lips, legs, etc. — which I think I've drawn a ton of inspiration from when it comes to photographing the women in my own images. One of my favorite Guy Bourdin images is actually of a woman covering her face with red nails. The hands look as though they are multiplying. It's so trippy and visually pleasing to the eye.
I often ask people if they have advice for young photographers. But I'm hoping you can share some advice for young women in general, as a whole, based on both your experience in the creative workforce and on the experience getting to know and photograph the women at Onyx.
My advice to young women would be to always stay true to yourself. Never let anyone tell you that your dreams, your thoughts, your desires, are not possible or that they are not enough. Never allow anyone to minimize you. You can do absolutely anything you want to do when you put your mind to it, you believe in yourself, and put in the work to get there. I never would have thought that I'd be in the position that I am in today, doing what I love. I've had a lot of people doubt me, I've had a lot of people say no, and I've had a lot of people insist I wasn't good enough. So NEVER forget that. The world really is yours!