One of Britain’s best known artists who works mostly with moving image has one segment of the Tate devoted to his long and influential career, posing questions about a range of subjects and for us, inspiring dynamic perspectives on marginalised communities and the black experience as lived in the West…
THIS is a brilliant show in many ways, covering the breadth of this artist’s work over a lifetime from his early days as a student in London, having graduated from Central St Martin’s School of Art and then his entry into filmmaking and activism.
It superbly chronicles his development from agitprop type video work, centred around marginalised ethnic and LGBTQIA+ communities, to the more sublime, subtle and poetic voice that is Isaac Julien today.
It isn’t that the artist at any point loses his commitment to telling these untold stories from the ethnic diaspora in the West or the discrimination that haunts LBTQIA+ people, of which he is part – it simply takes a slightly different aesthetic form and sensibility.
This is perhaps best illustrated by his latest work and on display in Europe for the very first time.
The quote at the top of the page is spoken by the character Alain Locke – (1885-1954), a philosopher, educator, and cultural theorist – in ‘Once Again… (Statues Never Die)’ – 2022. In the film, Locke is played by André Holland of ‘Moonlight’ fame.
In Julien’s film, which unfolds across five screens in a single room, Locke engages in a discussion with Albert C Barnes (1872-1951), an early US collector and exhibitor of African material culture.
The dialogue takes place inside the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (and where it enjoyed its first ever screening in June 2022 after being commissioned by it, to celebrate its 80th anniversary) and the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford and where Locke was the first black Rhodes scholar.
The site and idea of the museum is a long-running theme in Julien’s work and this film in particular is beautiful and mesmerising and goes right to the heart of current debates about the collection, display and interpretation of African art in European museums and whether it should be returned (restitution).
Julien includes and interweaves excerpts from two other films – Ghanian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo’s ‘You Hide Me’ – a film shot in 1970 where he goes inside the British Museum and argues for the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes. These were originally looted from what is today Edo State in Nigeria and date back to the 13th century and the kingdom of Benin. Some in the US argue that these items, acquired by US instituitions, should remain there, as they are relevant and important to black communities who were shipped to the US originally as slaves.
Similarly, Julien also weaves extracts of a French film by Chris Maker and Alan Resnais ‘Les statues meurent aussi’ (‘Statues also die’), made in 1953 and which also questions the interpretation of art from Africa by French museums and institutions. It was banned and never screened in France – because of its anti-colonial stance.
This film is also heavily influenced by a previous work, ‘Looking for Langston’ which explores black queer desire and is also available to view. Langston Hughes (1902-67) was another significant black cultural figure. The poet, novelist and playwright also emerged out of the Harlem Renaissance; and while this film is set in the 1920s in the US, it was shot in London and brings together image, sound and poetry and explores black desire through a dissolution, deconstruction and re-constitution of these different art forms, enriching the dialogue between them all.
This is the very first display that will confront you, when you actually enter the exhibition – other video work emanating from an earlier period, including his first work to receive much critical attention, ‘Who Killed Colin Roach?’ (1983 – (about Roach who died close to a London police station) is on display outside and is free to view – as is the helpful timeline depicting Julien’s artistic journey on the wall (interspersed with significant world events) and another video work from his Sankofa Film and Video Collective period, ‘This is Not an AIDS Advertisement’ (1987). This collective was a group of black and Asian art students who collaborated and came together to make art films and activist documentaries.
The exhibition is divided into six rooms and there is (if you so wish) the same entry and exit point – you can return to ‘Once Again…(Statues Never Die)’ or you can exit via a room screening ‘Vagabondia’. (2000).
We recommend that you set aside a good couple of hours at least – and sit through one film in its entirety – the longest film in the exhibition is no more than 50 minutes and the shortest is under 14 minutes (see the Tate link below which lists the seven films’ duration).
Also of huge and particular topical interest is ‘Western Union: Small Boats’ (2007) and ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ (2010).
Both are interconnected and powerful meditations on migration, refugee and asylum and reconnects to the humans, who undertake such perilous journeys in search of safety and a ‘better life’ amidst the increasingly hostile political rhetoric in western Europe. ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ was created in the aftermath of 23 people from China who lost their lives off the coast of north-west England, while commercial cockle-picking.
The earlier film explores Julien’s concerns through dance – and it is another recurring theme.
Inspired and supported in the early part of his career by the outspoken and queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman , Julien explores what Jarman called dance, “political lyricism”.
Importantly too, the exhibition space has been designed by Julien with architect David Adjaye.
In the press view on Wednesday (April 25), we heard from Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain; Isabella Maidment, the curator of this exhibition and formerly curator British contemporary art. She said this display had been four years in the making and was disrupted by covid and lockdowns. It was Maidment who drew us to the quote at the top of the page, by reciting it in her introduction and welcome to press attending the exhibition.
Nathan Ladd, curator Contemporary British Art, also spoke, as did Richard Owen, head of Lockton Global Real Estate & Construction, which is the main sponsor of this exhibition alongside support from the Ford Foundation.
Julien was born in London in 1960 to parents who met in London and were from St Lucia in the West Indies. He grew up in the East End of London and the artist now, lives and works both here (in the UK) and in Santa Cruz, California. He graduated from the Central St Martin’s School of Art in 1984 and then studied in Brussels and made ‘Looking for Langston’ (1989), which aided his initial breakthrough. His his first feature film, ‘Young Soul Rebels’ (set in 1977) won the Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991.
He also has a wide range teaching career and first started at Harvard and also includes Goldsmiths in London, Karlsruhe in Germany and has been Professor of the Arts, University of California, Santa Cruz since 2018. He was knighted last year.
Acv rating: ***** (out of five)
Isaac Julien – What Freedom is to Me (April 26) – August 20 2023, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Look out for panel events and discussions coming up too and there are price reductions (£17) available…
For more on all this go here: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/isaac-julien
Added Tate News – new director and Turner Prize shortlist announced
TATE MODERN has a new director. It was announced that Karin Hindsbo, director of The National Museum, Oslo, will take charge in September 2023. The museum in Oslo was opened in June 2022 and is the largest of its type in any of the Nordic countries. She said she was “beyond excited” and is looking forward immensely “to creating a unique and inspiring museum for a wide and diverse audience”. The announcement was made on Friday (April 26) and was welcomed by Maria Balshaw, director of Tate. She said: “Her nuanced and diverse approach to expressing national and transnational artistic ecologies chimes with Tate Modern’s ethos brilliantly.”
More here – https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/new-director-of-tate-modern-appointed
Tate also announced the shortlist for Britain’s top art prize the day before (April 25). The shortlist is Jesse Darling, Ghislaine Leung, Rory Pilgrim, and Barbara Walker, who is well known for her work around Windrush. The artists’ work will go on display at Towner Eastbourne, which celebrates its 100 years, from September 28. The winner of the £25,000 Prize will be announced on December 5 at Eastbourne’s Winter Gardens. The shortlisted artists receive £10,000 each.
More here: https://townereastbourne.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/turner-prize-2023