Historic and dynamic exhibition ‘Queer California: Untold Stories’ opens at OMCA

People at a museum looking at art
Susan Lin/Staff

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The Oakland Museum of California is making continued strides toward accurate and abundant representation for groups that are often relegated to the fringes of California’s historical discourse. The museum displayed this commitment earlier this year when it unveiled its permanent installation “Black Power.”

And now with the opening of its exhibit “Queer California: Untold Stories,” OMCA expands this effort toward inclusivity even more.

The press preview for the exhibit opened with words from OMCA director and CEO Lori Fogarty, who made the museum’s support for the creation and curation of “Queer California” abundantly clear. Fogarty spoke about the excitement around bringing the collection to life, and some of the amazing folks who helped that happen.

Christina Linden, the exhibition curator, outlined how important and timely she felt the exhibit was. She explained how the exhibit called into question the politics of inclusion versus exclusion while also addressing the propensity for queer people at large to be placed on the margins of history. Most of all, she spoke on how even within the queer community there were bodies that were often sidelined for a grander narrative. “Queer California” is thus an effort to give those “Untold Stories” the attention and agency they are so often denied.

At its entrance, a placard detailing what “Queer California” is about states that, “the future is queer because the present is not enough” — a notion that is echoed in the annals of the too often lost pasts that the exhibition puts on display.

Front and center stands a familiar token of the community, a vibrant rainbow flag. What viewers come to learn is that this piece is the original eight-color rainbow flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978.

A key accompanies the flag, offering a description for what every color means. On it, it explains that the colors pink and turquoise, which represent sex and magic/art respectively, were left off the flag when they went into mass production. Amanda Curreri, an artist and exhibition collaborator, explained that the colors were considered fugitive colors — quick to fade and a potential barrier to the commercialization Baker was hoping to achieve.

Directly oppositional to the original flag sits Curreri’s own piece “Misfits, 1979 (Sex and Art),” a hand-dyed flag containing the two colors omitted from the commercialized original. Curreri explained the piece served as a means to reopen discourse surrounding the reintroduction of these crucial tenants, sex and magic/art, that have too long been left out of the conversation.

“Queer California: Untold Stories” proves to be a landmark exhibition the moment you set foot inside. Its collection of loud, vibrant, nearly clashing colors are underscored by dark and dynamic corners, all together a tribute to the trials of existence within the queer community.

A film plays in a screening room near the front of the exhibit on the custody battles of lesbians during the 1970s in Los Angeles. Throughout the room, benches lay in nooks and crannies that detail the history of cruising in San Diego’s historic Balboa Park. And on a large wall at the back of the exhibition a timeline stretches the length of the room documenting moments of celebration, mourning, victory and loss for the queer community, which on the whole serves the exhibition’s ambition very well.

It says to visitors that the exhibit seeks to celebrate as much as it does to educate, offering a place where existence is not compromised for the sake of a narrative. It shows that all these pieces, from flags to videos to benches, culminate to highlight the struggles and perseverance of the queer community, with the fitting timeline serving as a backdrop.

The construction of “Queer California” encourages movement in all directions — mirroring the fluidity of a movement and people that have historically been difficult to comprehensively address. And this exhibit’s attempt to do so is a valiant one, one that cannot afford to be missed.

“Queer California” will run in OMCA’s Great Hall from April 13 to August 11.

Areyon Jolivette covers queer media. Contact her at [email protected].