Next week Tate Britain will present the UK’s first-ever survey exhibition celebrating the influential work of British artist and filmmaker Sir Isaac Julien (b. London, 1960).
One of the leading artists working today, Isaac Julien is internationally acclaimed for his compelling lyrical films and video art installations. This ambitious solo show will chart the development of his pioneering work in film and video over four decades from the 1980s through to the present day, revealing a career that remains as fiercely experimental and politically charged as it was forty years ago.
The exhibition will present a selection of key works from Julien’s ground-breaking early films and immersive three-screen videos made for the gallery setting, to the kaleidoscopic, sculptural multi-screen installations for which he is renowned today. Together, they explore how Julien breaks down barriers between different artistic disciplines by drawing from film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting and sculpture.
The show will open with Julien’s earliest experiments in moving image, produced in the context of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Founded by Julien in the summer of 1983 together with Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz and Nadine Marsh-Edwards, this group of London art students from across the African, Asian and Caribbean diaspora played a vital role in the establishment of Black independent cinema in Britain. Four works from this period will be brought together at Tate Britain, including Julien’s first film, Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) – conceived as a response to the unrest following the death of a young man at the entrance to a police station, Territories (1984), which focuses on the Black British experience in the early 80s, and This is Not An AIDS Advertisement (1987), an important work of LGBTQIA+ history that continues to resonate powerfully today. The artist’s pivotal film exploring Black, queer desire – Looking for Langston (1989) – will also feature, bringing together poetry and image to look at the private world of the Black artists and writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
Julien’s use of dance to articulate the movement of peoples across different continents, times and spaces, is reflected in the pioneering three-screen film installation Western Union: Small Boats (2007) and the spectacular Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019). In Western Union, a series of vignettes choreographed by the internationally renowned Russell Maliphant create a poetic reflection on African migration histories and the effects of trauma on people, buildings and monuments. A Marvellous Entanglement meanwhile features a stunning performance from Balé Folclórico da Bahia filmed at the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia in Brazil, meditating on the legacy of visionary modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992).
For the first time in Europe, the exhibition will premiere the artist’s latest film, Once Again…(Statues Never Die) (2022), which explores the relationship between US collector Albert C. Barnes and the famed philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, known as the ‘Father of the Harlem Renaissance’. The film examines their storied relationship, its mutually formative critical dialogue, and its significant impact on their work as educators and activists on behalf of various African American causes. The exhibition will also showcase Julien’s critically acclaimed ten-screen film installation Lessons of the Hour (2019). A portrait of the life and times of the self-liberated freedom-fighter Frederick Douglass, this work can be seen to represent Julien’s 40-year long commitment to cultural activism, the politics and poetics of image, and the moral and social influence of picture-making.
Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me, 26th April – 20th August 2023, Tate Britain
About the artist
Filmmaker and installation artist, Isaac Julien KBE RA, was born in 1960 in London. His work breaks down the barriers between different artistic disciplines, drawing from and commenting on film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting, and sculpture, and uniting them to construct powerful visual narratives through multi-screen film installations. His 1989 documentary-drama exploring author Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance titled Looking for Langston garnered Julien a cult following while his 1991 debut feature Young Soul Rebels won the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hist latest work Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) is an immersive five-screen installation that explores the relationship between Dr. Albert C. Barnes, an early US collector and exhibitor of African material culture, and the famed philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” Drawing on Julien’s extensive research in the archives of the Barnes Foundation, the film explores the reciprocal impact of Alain Locke’s political philosophy and cultural organizing activities, and Albert E. Barnes’s pioneering art collecting and democratic, inclusive educational enterprise.
Julien’s recent international solo exhibitions include Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, 2022; Lessons of the Hour, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, USA, 2022; Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, NC, USA, on view until 27th February, 2022; Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi — A Marvellous Entanglement, CentroCentro (Panorama Madrid), Madrid, Spain (2021); Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour, McAvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (2020–2021); Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi — A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome (2020–2021); Isaac Julien: Western Union: Small Boats, Neuberger Museum, New York (2020); Isaac Julien: Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2019); Looking for Langston at Tate Britain (2019); and Playtime at LACMA (2019).
Julien has previously exhibited at venues including Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013), Art Institute of Chicago (2013), Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012), and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2005). He participated in the Venice Biennale at the inaugural Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th edition in 2017 with Western Union: Small Boats. Previously, he presented Kapital and directed Das Kapital Oratorio in the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, in 2015. His work has also been exhibited in the 7th Gwangju Biennial, South Korea (2008); Prospect 1, New Orleans (2008); Performa 07, New York (2007) and in documenta 11, Kassel (2002).
Julien has taught extensively, holding posts such as Chair of Global Art at University of Arts London (2014-2016) and Professor of Media Art at Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, Germany (2008 – 2016). He is the recipient of the James Robert Brudner ‘83 Memorial Prize and Lectures at Yale University (2016).
In 2018, Julien joined the faculty at the University of California Santa Cruz where he is a distinguished professor of the arts and leads the Moving Image Lab together with Arts Professor Mark Nash. Julien is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017. Most recently, he was awarded a Kaiserring Goslar Award in 2022, and was granted a knighthood as part of the Queen’s Honours List in 2022. isaacjulien.com