The day before Adrienne Raquel began shooting her photo series Onyx, a body of work depicting the dancers at the Houston club of the same name now immortalized in a 168-page book published by Damiani Publishing, she got the go-ahead. Well, almost.

“The manager was like, ‘You got my blessing but you have to go talk to Tyson,’” Raquel says. “I was like, ‘Who is Tyson?’” Tyson, as it turned out, was a house mom to the performers and a proverbial gatekeeper to the inner sanctum of the club.

Photography by Adrienne Raquel

“[The manager] took me back in the dressing room and says, ‘Tyson this is Adrienne,’ and puts his hands up and walks away,” the photographer says of how the meeting went the next day. “I was like fuck!” But still, she got over her nerves and explained to an “unbothered” and seemingly unimpressed Tyson (who was working on a wig) what she wanted to do. After a few questions, Tyson rendered her verdict.

“You real sweet,” Raquel recalls Tyson saying. “You can take pictures here but you just got to deal with them,” before looking behind Raquel as all the dancers filed in. 

It was these women (and women like them) who had inspired Raquel to do the series, initially created for a Fotografiska exhibit. In 2017 she had come to Club Onyx with her family for her aunt’s 50th birthday. She found herself equally surprised by the venue’s welcoming atmosphere — there’s a no nudity policy — as well as mesmerized by the dynamics at play: between the women themselves, between the women and their clients, as well as the women and their money. “To me, it seemed these women had full reign,” she says. “They’re like sirens. In that moment I wanted to create something where people wouldn’t have their same preconceived notions about what exotic dancing, stripping, and sex work is.”

Photography by Adrienne Raquel

Raquel shot for almost two weeks in November 2020, during performances, squeezing between paying customers and finding moments in a fly-on-the-wall capacity. Influences from her childhood and teenage years sauntered in the mix: hip-hop videos like “Tip Drill,” films like Player’s Club, as well as the imagery from magazines like XXL and Vibe. Coupled with her history as a perfectionist shooting mostly in-studio, with a penchant for vignettes, her vision came sharply into high-gloss view.

“I wanted to highlight these women in a way that didn’t feel overly objectified,” she says. She learned their stories — how one didn’t need the club’s money but enjoyed the attention. “While these images are sexy and ooze fantasy I feel like I was definitely able to capture them in a different light than when we usually think of strip clubs.”

Photography by Adrienne Raquel

As a result, there is one major omission in the images that depict performers like Kai, Cali, Vixen, and more: there are no men. Though there are scenes of women raking up money in the Celebrity Room and doing backbends on poles in the Champagne Room, the presence of customers is merely assumed, never depicted in-frame. 

“When they’re on that stage I realized they’re not even dancing for the guys, they’re dancing for themselves,” Raquel reminisces.

Onyx is available May 16, 2023, via Damiani Publishing

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