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UCL Mellon Programme: Interdisciplinary Seminar 2008-2009

Seminar: 17 October 2008 (Chair: Cüneyt Çakirlar, more ... )

A screening and discussion of Tongues Untied (dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989) and Looking for Langston (dir. Isaac Julien, 1989)


The main agenda for this double screening is to trigger possible ways of remembering and re-reading, retrospectively, the queer artistic and cultural productions in the late 1980s with a particular focus on black gay male communities. Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien were very significant figures in black queer activism and visual arts. Their work can be considered not only as a critical response to the so-called white racial consciousness of gay male cultural production in the times of AIDS. They also attempted to re-historicize and re-affirm the image of the black gay male body, its erotics, in exposing the politics, the costs and the ideological burdens of visual representation.

Riggs’ film Tongues Untied can be regarded as a performative documentary about what was happening in the underground black queer culture in that particular time (late 1980s) and how they were struggling with both homophobia, AIDS-phobia and racism. The film, despite its directness and non-mediation, is further orchestrated by poems of Essex Hemphill, music of Blackberri, and the testimonies ‘acted out’ as a performance.

Julien’s work Looking for Langston operates quite differently when compared to Riggs’ film. Julien’s filmic meditation on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, as José Esteban Muñoz puts it aptly, is ‘a mythotext’, a melancholic gesture to cultural history, and a queer form of visual historiography. In other words, Julien’s art-work plays with the Western cultural memory about the black male body by going back and forth between photography and film, past and present, evidence and fantasy. The film deserves particular attention in its strategically enacted ambiguous relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography of black males. Julien’s trans-historical fantasy setting in Looking for Langston, putting Langston and Hemphill in dialogue, is a profoundly political attempt to claim actively a queer mythology and history from within a particular intersection between sexuality, gender and race.

This page last modified 26 September, 2012 by UCL Mellon Admin

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