In 1989 Marlon T. Riggs made “Tongues Untied,” the groundbreaking, controversial film that explored love and sex between black men. Thirty years later, we’re still grappling with the same issues: how black men can express tenderness and desire for each other in the face of racism, homophobia and toxic masculinity.
Philadelphia-born artist Shikeith admirably takes up the mantle in an exhibition of photographs, video and sculpture at ltd los angeles.
The gallery’s main space is taken up by the 2018 video installation “To Bathe a Mirror.” Arrayed across walls, screens and the floor are five video projections depicting black men and boys engaged in various activities: boxing, dancing, floating in water. The effect is a bit cacophonous, but the piece depicts myriad ways (sanctioned and unsanctioned) in which men might touch each other.
On one screen, the camera rests on graffiti that reads: “I cut myself open and birthed a mirror just so He could see himself inside of me.” The generosity of this visceral reciprocity is echoed in a smaller projection. It’s a wide shot of two men walking in slow motion toward each other on a basketball court. When they reach the center, instead of challenging each other, they embrace.
The next room is lined with photographs of black men. “A Missed Prayer” from 2017 depicts two shirtless men. One has his back to us, tattooed with the words “Only God Can Judge Me.” The other gazes at us over his shoulder, somewhat defiantly, as if we have interrupted an intimate moment.
“Kris” depicts a man with his eyes closed, his skin dappled with sweat or water. Like Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous “Black Book” photographs of black men, Shikeith’s images are inflected with desire, but they treat their subjects with a tenderness and specificity often lacking in Mapplethorpe’s vision.
Upstairs are more photographs, some in a more narrative vein, and a single-channel video, “A Drop of Sun Under the Earth,” from 2017. It deals with the barriers to intimacy between black men in a storyline that feels ripped from a horror movie. The piece features two black schoolboys, one of whom has a disturbingly distended belly. As the pregnant boy writhes on the floor, the other kneels beside him, rocking back and forth, desperately reciting an alarming chant. He wears a necklace with the name “Mary” in gold letters. “Mary” is of course slang for a gay man, but it’s also a reference to the Virgin Mary; this must be a virgin birth, however gender bending.
This disturbing sequence cuts abruptly to a placid scene of two naked men cuddling. They discuss the ways in which they have learned to be intimate, to go beyond the violence expected of them. The transition is jarring but affecting, tracing a process of reckoning with the pressures of growing up black and gay.
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Oct. 26
Info: (323) 879-9942, www.ltdlosangeles.com
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