MFA student photographer reveals the world of burlesque

February 28, 2023

Erica McKeehen, a graduate student studying photography, unveils her other life in her photography exhibit titled “REVEAL.”

The show portrays the world of burlesque performance and sex work, alongside McKeehen’s perspective of her friend’s work, in two collections titled “Flores Turquesas: Seven Years with Kitty Tornado” and “Days of Rust: Self Portraits.”

“REVEAL” is on display at the Columbia Arcade Gallery, located at 618 S. Michigan Ave. through March 21.

“By presenting a collage, and [multiple portrayals] of one person, that is how you build empathy and understanding of other people,” McKeehen said.

Katina Donoghue, the subject of one of McKeehen’s collections, is a fellow burlesque performer who goes by the name Kitty Tornado on stage. The theatre graduate from Western Michigan University was in Spain teaching English with her husband when inspiration struck for McKeehen.

“[McKeehen] came to Spain to join us where she made many of the images on display in the exhibition,” Donoghue said.

Donoghue said “she tried to be a part of the work with [McKeehen] as much as possible since it is largely about herself and their friendship.”

“One of the many challenges we face in this industry is asking people to consider burlesque and other sex work, as legitimate work,” Donoghue said. “Burlesque is one of the ‘softer’ areas of sex work and some people still don’t believe it is valuable or are afraid to engage with anything that confronts people in control of their own sexual power.”

McKeehen said “she hopes people recognize the quality of the work she produced for the show.”

“I have really worked hard, for a long time, to make images that I like, that I am proud to put on a wall and that say something about me,” McKeehen said.

In an email to the Chronicle, Kelli Connell, the graduate program director in the Photography Department, described McKeehen’s photographs as both “intimate” and “important.”

“It is important that women’s bodies are depicted in art in ways that push against societal norms and expectations,” Connell said. “The intimate portraits in “REVEAL” allow audiences to question their assumptions about women’s bodies and to expand their definitions of beauty and gender roles in society.”

This story has been corrected to reflect the proper spelling of McKeenen’s last name.