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Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me

by Eddie Chambers
Reviews / Exhibition • 05.07.2023

The retrospective of work by Isaac Julien (b.1960) at Tate Britain, London, includes seven major filmic works, presented in six specially constructed viewing areas. Titled What Freedom is to Me, it is a timely undertaking that emphasises just how important and unique Julien’s practice as a film-maker is and has been for four decades. Indeed, the exhibition text asserts that ‘over the past 40 years, Julien has critically interrogated the beauty, pain and contradictions of the world, while inviting new ways of seeing’. The earliest work included here is perhaps the artist’s best known, Looking for Langston (1989), and the most recent is Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022), which together bookend the remaining five: Ten Thousand Waves (2010), Western Union: Small Boats (2007), Lessons of the Hour (2019), Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019) and Vagabondia (2000).

With the release of Looking for Langston FIG.1, Julien emerged as a visionary and probing artistic voice. The film is a decidedly original take on the personal and professional life of the legendary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the poet and writer Langston Hughes (1901–67). It remains unsurpassed in its deeply nuanced and sensitive considerations of Hughes’s sexuality, presenting these lyrical and poetic investigations within broader contexts, such as the racial and class politics of the Harlem Renaissance and considerations of Black male homosexual identity in late 1980s London. It remains a point of considerable achievement that Julien navigated the use of archival footage for the film at a time that not only preceded the use of email and the internet but even the widespread use of the fax machine. Now, nearly thirty-five years after its making, the film remains as fresh, daring and uncompromising as ever.

The exhibition demonstrates the progression of Julien’s work from a restrained aesthetic, as typified by Looking for Langston, to works largely characterised by a rich, sumptuous colour-saturated aesthetic, before a return to monochrome in Once Again… (Statues Never Die) FIG.2. Although, this later work nevertheless reflects a visual richness that continues to be the hallmark of Julien’s practice. It is particularly fitting for these two films to be exhibited together, as both share a broad commonality in their probing, out-of-the-ordinary considerations of aspects of the Harlem Renaissance – known in the 1920s and 1930s as the New Negro Movement, after The New Negro (1925), edited by the philosopher Alain Locke – and its associated artists. Looking for Langston incorporates footage of the opening of an exhibition at the Harmon Foundation, New York, of work by African American artists, including Lois Mailou Jones (1905–98), which was attended by such illustrious figures as Palmer Hayden and James A. Porter. The accompanying audio, voiced by Stuart Hall, poses questions about the relative brevity of ‘the Negro being in vogue’ and associated references to the (in)visibility of homosexuality. Once Again… (Statues Never Die) revisits and expands on these themes; it dramatises a dialogue between Locke (played by André Holland) and Albert C. Barnes (played by Danny Huston), a collector and exhibitor of African material culture who founded the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, in 1922. Along the way, the film draws in references to present-day archives of African material culture, while periodically returning to a central motif of Locke standing in a snowstorm FIG.3

As though to remind audiences of the extent to which Julien is an artist as much as he is a film-maker, the central space of the exhibition – from which a number of walkways lead to individual screening rooms – contains enlarged photographs relating to the exhibited films, including What Freedom is to Me (Homage) FIG.4 and The Lady of the Lake (Lessons of the Hour) FIG.5. Thus, the exhibition is a compelling mix of stills and projected works, the latter of which move from the single screen of Looking for Langston to Julien’s now commonplace use of multi-screen projection. This technique is an engaging one, as it brings the audience’s attention squarely back to the act of conscious looking. Not infrequently, the viewer encounters the same image, presented at varying angles that are often slightly out of sync with one other. The multi-screen is of course a well-established and effective means through which one can, quite literally, avail oneself of multiple readings of the same or similar – as well as deliberately contrasting – images. In Julien’s films it facilitates a particular awareness and appreciation of the artist’s use of layering. 

One might in some respects summarise Julien’s films as compelling diasporic narratives, the multiplicity of which is reinscribed by visualisations of Blackness, race, gender, violence, culture, history and identity. However, as broad and layered as Julien’s diasporic excavations might be, such works as Ten Thousand Waves centre on additional narratives. In this instance, the film takes as its sobering starting point the horrific deaths in February 2004 of twenty-three undocumented Chinese immigrants, who were drowned by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, a large estuary in northwest England, while harvesting cockles. The exhibition text describes the film as weaving ‘contemporary Chinese culture with ancient myths, including the story of the goddess Mazu which stems from the Fujian Province’ – a south-eastern Chinese province, which the ill-fated cockle pickers hailed from. The text continues by suggesting that the film ‘reflects Julien’s commitment to telling stories that illuminate the human cost of capital, labour and extraction, exploring the movement of people across countries and continents’.

Although Julien is a prolific artist, What Freedom is to Me is a poignant reminder of the relative infrequency with which his work is brought to wider attention. One might see Julien’s films occasionally – most recently, this reviewer was privileged to see Once Again… (Statues Never Die) at the 15th Sharjah Biennial – but more substantial showings of his practice are rare. Each of the seven works included here has a different focus. Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement FIG.6, for example, pays homage to the Italian-born Brazilian modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi, focusing on the power of visionary architecture and what it can do in terms of its pronounced cultural resonances. Drawing particular attention to the power of dance and choreography FIG.7 and associated Afrocentric cultural practices in Brazil, the three-screen installation presents dramatic multidimensional views of a number of Bo Bardi’s iconic buildings in São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia – the latter being a particularly vibrant centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. Dance and choreography emerge throughout the exhibition as art forms beloved by Julien, also evident in various scenes in Looking for Langston and the choreography that characterises Vagabondia, which was filmed in the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

One must of course consider these disciplines alongside Julien’s trademark use of music and the cacophony of aural elements that characterise most of his works. Music is an ever-important accompaniment to Julien’s films, and although each of them is screened in a separate room, strains from other soundtracks filter in and intermingle. Nowhere is this manifestation of the aural more powerful than in Julien’s homage to the American abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass, Lessons of the Hour FIG.8, in which the crack of the whip dramatically engages the senses. For the most part, the work consists of recreated scenes and poetic imaginings of the life of Douglass, who is convincingly played by the British actor Ray Fearon, encompassing his time in the United Kingdom, particularly in Edinburgh, and his views on photography and the portrait, as the most photographed American of the nineteenth century. These scenes are interspersed with images of historical locomotives traversing the landscape and police surveillance footage of the 2015 Baltimore protests following the police murder of Freddie Gray. With the latter device, Julien reminds us that the racial injustices Douglass railed against are not yet entirely behind us.

In a supplementary screening area outside the main cinematic rooms, one is reminded of what a bold and original artist Julien is in the presentation of seldom seen early works, including Who Killed Colin Roach (1983), made while Julien was still an art student. Colin Roach was a young Black man who died inside a police station in what can understatedly and undisputedly be described as suspicious circumstances. Who Killed Colin Roach is thirty-four minutes long, shot using Super 8 film and subsequently transferred to digital format. The film distinguishes itself not only as an original manifestation of investigative film-making, but as a compelling challenge to the dominant format of television documentary.

To see What Freedom is to Me in its entirety requires nearly four hours of viewing time. Certainly, hurried gallery visits are out of the question for those wishing to acquire a deeper appreciation of Julien’s work. The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial catalogue, which together with other recent publications, such as that which accompanies Lessons of the Hour (2022), and Isaac Julien: Riot (2013), ensure that Julien is creating an unarguable trail of scholarship and reflection befitting a particularly important artist.


Exhibition details

Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me

Tate Britain, London

26th April–20th August 2023


Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me
Edited by Isabella Maidment
Tate Publishing, London, 2023
ISBN 978–1–84976–872–6

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About the author

Eddie Chambers

is Holder of the David Bruton Jr Centennial Professorship in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is World is Africa: Writings on Diaspora Art (2021). He is the editor of the Routledge Companion to African Diaspora Art History (forthcoming).  

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