How one artist captured the early days of Australian drag in intricate embroidered detail

Dulcie Dujour remembers the day a stranger came up to her at the pub and asked if she could do the drag queen’s portrait, in embroidery.

Late ’80s. The Peel in Melbourne. Still the early days of drag despite Carlotta’s groundbreaking ways. Dujour had just finished performing when novice artist Paula Hyland came up to the bar and introduced herself.

Paula Hyland.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Drag was different then. More low-key. Less choreography. The queens did their own gigs, wigs and make-up, nothing as elaborate as reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under.

But Hyland wasn’t just some random overenthusiastic straight fan – she’d studied with legendary textile artist Isabel Foster.

“I took Paula backstage and introduced her to everyone. I just got on really well with her. She was so funny and I was quite flattered,” says Jeff Dycer aka Dulcie Dujour.

Since creating his drag character in the ’80s, Dycer has moved to Mildura to run a flower shop with his partner and only brings out Dujour for friends these days.

Dulcie and Lucy at Interval1993, wool sewings on hessian.Credit:Simon Hewson

A few years after that first encounter, the portrait finally arrived, a striking image, thousands of tiny woollen stitches, shades, contours and flowers, hair a complete marvel.

Now another portrait of Dulcie Dujour is part of Drags’R’Us, a retrospective of Hyland’s works at Waterloo’s Darren Knight Gallery, all hand-embroidered images of drag queens of the Melbourne scene in the ’90s.

Hyland says that night was a turning point for her. She’d been embroidering for a while but had never been satisfied with anything she’d produced. Dulcie Dujour introduced her to an entirely new world and to all the people in it.

“After I met Dulcie, I knew immediately I wanted to do portraits of drag queens – and none of my work would have been possible without that initial support of Dulcie.”

Hyland held the first of her drag queen shows in 1995, all of them large, detailed works, all hand sewn.

But the relentless intensity of hand-stitching every shade of hair and of skin was already taking its toll on her health. In Hyland’s second show in 1997, she started using screen prints, some hand-painting and just sewing outlines or small areas to spare her hands.

“I just wanted to celebrate the costumes and the dressmaking. The whole thing of drag is injecting positivity, having a lark and a good time,” she says. That mattered during the time of AIDS, as drag queens died one by one, says Hyland.

Drag Queen 1996, wool sewings on hessian. Credit:Simon Hewson

She stopped sewing years ago. She lost all the dexterity in her hands and despite her health problems, never had any diagnosis. It was even hard for her to turn the pages of a book let alone thread a needle. Then a year ago, she found she couldn’t walk any more and was finally diagnosed with cervical myelopathy. News that Darren Knight wanted to exhibit her portraits cheered her enormously.

The works range in price from $6,500 to $9,500 and in size from 84 by 71 centimetres to around 123 by 119 centimetres.

It’s not Knight’s first show of the Hyland queens. Legendary Australian artist Ken Whisson introduced him to Hyland and her husband Roger when Darren Knight had a gallery in Melbourne.

Roger, ever the enthusiastic supporter of Paula’s work, persuaded the long-time gallerist to show her works and some of the Hylands’ collaborations. Now it’s the gallery’s contribution to World Pride, along with a show upstairs Being Boring – More Dead Gay Artists, curated by Robert Lake.

Dulcie Dujour still loves Hyland’s portrait, “although Paula called it Our Lady of the Flowers”.

Dulcie – Our Lady of Flowers1994, wool sewings on hessian.Credit:Simon Hewson

“And I’ve never been a lady.”

Drags’R’Us: Drag stars & personalities of 1990s Melbourne is on at Darren Knight Gallery, 840 Elizabeth St, Waterloo, Sydney from February 4 to March 4, 2023.

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