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Read why this former drag queen is returning to his hometown roots

Read why this former drag queen is returning to his hometown roots

David Hodge, aka Dusty O

Dragged Back To My Roots is an exhibition of work by the English artist David Hodge taking place at Birmingham’s Digbeth Art Space next month. Hodge, known to many as his drag alter ego, Dusty O, is familiar to many on the London gay scene. This latest show is his biggest exhibition yet, and his first in the city where he grew up.

Hodge, like many other gay men in the UK, migrated from the place where he was raised and moved to London when younger. There, he found fame in clubland as a DJ, club promoter and face around town.

However, when his long-running night, Trannyshack UK, closed down in 2015, he found himself questioning his life and career. Spending three-hours applying makeup had become a chore, while late-nights had lost their sheen.

Dusty O
Dusty O (Photo: Marc Abe)

Finding himself unemployed and scrabbling around for money (‘the phones stopped ringing’), Hodge, then in his late 40s, turned to painting. He was spurned on an encouraged by his now husband, photographer Marc Abe, who gave him a canvas and some paints with which to express himself.

Since that time, Hodge has turned his back on the club scene, worked regular jobs, and pursued his new-found love of creating art.

Artwork by Dusty O
Artwork by Dusty O

He’s had two solo exhibitions in London, followed by his first international show in Barcelona earlier this year. Returning to Birmingham has inevitably proved a reflective experience.

The birth of Dusty O

Hodge moved from Birmingham to London in 1989. He’d been running a small shop in a fashion market, but when it closed, and following the breakdown of his first relationship, he says he was ‘lost and heartbroken.

‘I was back living at my parents and some of my friends had already migrated south. In those days the scene in Brum was very small and very mainstream and I had outgrown it. So I moved.

‘It happened very quickly really. I had been clubbing in London off and on for a couple of years and loved it. It was blossoming and club nights like Kinky Gerlinky were huge. There was nothing else like it and Birmingham seemed very small and very uninspiring at the time. Although it’s changed massively since then.

‘I felt more accepted for my sexuality and way of life in London. There was more choice and and more going on in the arts and club scene.’

David Hodge, photographed by his husband, Marc Abe
David Hodge, photographed by his husband, Marc Abe

It’s a story that many LGBTI people will relate to. Hodge soon found himself in his element, swinging between some of the West End’s glitziest clubs and Soho’s dingiest dives. His drag alter ego, Dusty O, came into being.

His latest artworks look back upon this time in a day-glo, graphic fashion. Some don’t hold back in their snapshots of gay sexuality.

Oompa Loompas, by Dusty O
Oompa Loompas, by Dusty O

Boy George

One of his fans is longtime friend, Boy George. The singer has written the intro to the program for the show.

He describes Hodge’s work as ‘autobiographical and drags you through a cartoon world of nightlife, drag queens, wannabes and the occasional pop icon. Flirting with religion, sexuality and challenging PC concepts with a cheeky irreverence. It is bright, bold, sexually charged, psychedelic and unapologetic.’

Despite growing up there, Birmingham has not felt like ‘home’ for a very long time.

‘When I return to Birmingham now I get lost!’ says Hodge. ‘It’s changed so much and grown into a more cosmopolitan and interesting city. The architecture has changed drastically and there is so much more choice compared to when I lived there in the 80’s.

‘It feels as though there has been a change of attitude too. People have become a bit more cosmopolitan. I suppose the internet has given everyone the access to what was London’s privilege for so long. There is a thriving arts and club scene too. It’s growing. Places like Digbeth are gradually becoming a hub for creatives and artists.’

Vile Queens & Air Kisses, by Dusty O
Vile Queens & Air Kisses, by Dusty O

The re-birth of Birmingham

It might surprise his younger self, but Hodge is relishing his return to the midlands.

‘I love being back in Brum. I am sponsored by one of the most iconic Birmingham breweries, Davenports. The Baron Davenport himself has funded the show. To have someone from my hometown believe in me and enable me to put together a body of work and exhibit it in such a beautiful space is an incredible privilege.

‘It also seems so apt. My own story starts in Birmingham. I left it heartbroken and with nothing but a couple of bin liners of clothes and make-up. Thirty years later, after a pretty eventful life, I am going back to start a whole new journey.

‘It’s a bit like saying, “I was way for a while, quite busy, this is what I was doing, I will show it to you first because I love you.”

‘It’s pretty emotional for me to be going back. My mom can actually come and see what I do. She only ever managed that a couple of times when I was doing shows and working in London. She will no doubt hate it but at least she gets to see it first hand and not on YouTube.’

Mister Queen, by Dusty O
Mister Queen, by Dusty O

Life in London

Life in London has been a rollercoaster for Hodge: from partying with A-list celebrities and accolades for his clubs, to being left penniless by a tax investigation and a burglary of his home. Could he ever imagine leaving the capital?

‘I honestly love London very much. I loved it from the day I moved here and I love it still. It has changed and will keep changing. That is part of its charm for me.

‘I have watched my own area of Kings Cross where I have lived for nearly 30 years, turn from a no-go zone in to one of the most up’n;coming creative areas of the city. I can’t actually imagine living anywhere else full-time. It suits me perfectly and after so long it is the place I know best.

‘It’s amazing to be working in Birmingham, presenting my first large scale exhibition in the place where I grew up and which helped mould my younger self. I will always love Brum, it’s a part of me. However, my home is most definitely in Kings Cross.’

Dragged back to My Roots by Dusty O is at the Zellig Gallery, Digbeth Art Space, Birmingham, from 1-14 December.

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