Has anybody talked to you at all about what we’re doing?

by Madeline Saxton-Beer

MOCA's upcoming exhibition, Tongues Untied, spotlights Marlon Riggs' landmark film.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the average American did well to differentiate homosexuality from the deadly disease that was ravaging the community. It was during this time—the eighties with it’s Cold War, the rise of crack in the inner cities, and then the epidemic—that it was one thing to be gay, and it was another thing altogether to be gay and black. Subjected to a society that was driven by a hateful trifecta of homophobia, racism and misinformation, a young Marlon Riggs set about documenting his coming-of-age via a series of deeply moving, semi-autobiographical films: Ethnic Notions (1986); Color Adjustment (1992); Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (1993); Boys' Shorts: The New Queer Cinema Anthem (1993); Black is... Black Ain't (1993); Affirmations (1994).

Riggs was many things: a Harvard alumnus, artist, poet, film director, historian and activist, but—most definitively—he was a young, gay, African American man who felt an irrepressible desire to expose the unforgiving social context of his youth. Stemming from a deep-seated refusal to accept the shame that was thrust upon him because of his sexual identity (in collusion with his racial one), it was upon these unforgiving environs that he based his films. His most acclaimed documentary, Tongues Untied (1989), will take center stage at an eponymous exhibition at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art beginning June 6. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the City of West Hollywood, MOCA has drawn upon its reserves to present some the most deeply personal pieces in its possession serving as an aching reminder of what it meant to live, lose and be homosexual during the throes of the crisis.

Not only recalling the obvious devastation in a poignant way, the heavier elements of Riggs' exceptional feature-length film are broken up by he and his posse (including the likes of Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill) performing lyrical verses that depicted a more quotidian side of what it was like to be both black and gay. "Apologetic" is not a word that features in their vocabulary as you'll notice when they pay a visit to the “Institute of Snap!thology”—a lesson in finger-clicking snap diva-ism that would make even Sasha Fierce cower.

What permeates Tongues Untied most of all, however, is its fierce response to the inescapable discrimination that was imposed on this particular group of individuals. Staring down the barrel of oppression, Tongues Untied not only opened an unprecedented dialogue about “black men loving black men,” but also called for collectivity and support from the wider community who, for the most part, regarded the epidemic as some awful form of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Upon entry to the exhibition, a selection of archival materials related to MOCA's history of queer-related programming will serve as an introduction to Riggs' film. Short of a comprehensive covering of the subject of the AIDS epoch in America, Tongues Untied is a uniquely minimalist series of works depicting the deeply personal side of living as part of the gay community from the inside out.

Tongues Untied starts June 6 at the MOCA Pacific Design Center