Installation view, Once Again… (Statues Never Die), Barnes Foundation, 2022 Photo: Henrik Kam, © Barnes Foundation, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Between delight and discomfort Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me
The first ever large-scale solo exhibition by film and video artist Isaac Julien is currently on view at Tate Britain in London. Jasmine Joy James visits the exhibition and is overwhelmed in the best possible ways by the multiplicity of perspective in the films: ‘Perhaps Julian’s freedom is born out of his capacity to sit with the subjectivities of the vying identities we hold within.’
Despite an impressive career spanning forty years, Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me, now on view at Tate Britain, is the first large-scale solo show for the film and video artist. The exhibition features seven films, with the addition of some of Julian’s earlier works displayed outside the exhibition free of charge. I start outside where I encounter works such as This is not an AIDS advertisement (1987), a film that celebrates sexual desire and queer relationships produced amid the AIDS crisis, and Who Killed Collin Roach? (1983), an actively political film and series of photographs that explores the controversial death of a Black man of the young age of 21, who was shot at the entrance of an East London police station. Julien followed the protests and the fallout in the wake of this tragedy and the alleged police cover-up. Although the rest of the show is clear in sentiment and message, Julien’s early works appear more unapologetic, unabashed and very routed in the politicisation of Blackness, queerness and London.
Another film I view in the outside area is Territories (1984), which, as the exhibition text cites Julien, aims ‘to create different visual auras, play with time [and] play within the film using factual material’. This experimental exploration of the Notting Hill Carnival – as much a cultural phenomenon and socio-political signifier, as it is all-around good time – reflects on the historical politicisation of police surveillance that the Afro-Caribbean community was often subjected to during the 1980s. The relevance of such subjectivity remains in the streets of London, but perhaps in a more passive and less physically combative way. At the time, the Notting Hill Carnival provided a perfect storm of class, race, labour, and sexuality to be a site of resistance and was therefore placed under the microscope of the police. The intersectionality of identity explored in Territories reoccurs constantly throughout the show.
A shared past
The exhibition at Tate Britain is designed by Adjaye Associates of David Adjaye. Once inside, the layout conjuncts in the central atrium filled with stills from the films, poetry, sketches and storyboards. Stretching out in all directions via short hallways are the individual screening rooms for the films. Meandering from one film to the next, there isn’t a particular order in which the films should be experienced – the result is a menagerie of works I drift in and out of. With a combined run time of approximately three and a half hours, visitors must make sure to carve out enough time to marvel at the works and to preferably decompress with a drink to accompany the food for thought. Although enjoyable, the lengthy nature of the exhibition brought a touch of sensory overload – an overwhelming download of both delight and discomfort.
Upon entering the inside section of the show, the first work I encounter is Once Again…(Statues Never Die) (2022), which features a fictional conversation between Alain Locke (1885-1954), a philosopher and cultural theorist of the Harlem Renaissance, and Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), an early US exhibitor and collector of African art. Their discussion is centred on why African art is collected and by whom, and is set while filming at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, where Locke was the first Black scholar. This exploration of the ownership of African works of art is further examined by the lyrical element of much of Julien’s works.
One quote uttered in the film strikes me and I sit with it for a while: ‘Nothing is more galvanising than a sense of a shared past.’ There’s something divine in that moment when very little has to be uttered, yet so much vim and determination are produced when I’m with other Black people, striving for better, knowing our shared histories. Something about it feels visceral, and to quote Julian, ‘galvanising’. Once Again…(Statues Never Die) is projected on three large screens and wonderfully reflected in mirrors splayed across the gallery. The distorted mirrored images wander around the room, reflecting alternatives upon the alternatives of repeated and distorted shots used in the works. The idea of a galvanising shared history felt magnified and gained a sense of momentum. The irony of critiquing institutions and examining the potential dangers of the fetishisation and misappropriation of African artworks in an exhibition at the Tate Britain was not lost on me. Tate Britain is a historic institution that, without question, has a chequered past regarding its collection of works by Black makers, and it felt like the perfect home for this film to gain an additional layered and double meaning.
Once Again…(Statues Never Die) also uses footage from Julien’s seminal work Looking for Langston (1989), which is also on display in the show. In conjunction with the characterisation of Alain Locke, a queer writer, philosopher, and educator who attempted to court Langston Hughes, the famed and pioneering jazz poet, there is also an exploration of queer desire. In my opinion, Julien masterfully splices Black ownership, what it means to be Black and queer and the myriad of perspectives that can come from that. The most impactful way he creates this feeling is through his signature use of multiple angles, takes and views of a single moment in time. Begging the questions: did we miss something? Whose point of view are we witnessing? And is it reliable? The effect of such framing provides nuance to Julian’s play with time and the absurdity of singular truth. From Julien’s sense of subjectivity, we can peer into his sense of freedom. And perhaps his freedom is born out of his capacity to sit with the subjectivities of the vying identities we hold within.
Figures living and dead
Playing with a sense of time is characteristic of Julien’s work, apparent in his work since the 1980s. Juilian’s piece on the Italian modernist architect and designer and the many public buildings she designed for Brazil, Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), is a choreography and dance-focused piece. Lina Bo Bardi’s practice is celebrated for its devotion to promoting the ways art can bring people together. Filmed in the buildings she designed, they become a space for movement and dance in multiple choreographies. Flitting between reenactments of Bo Bardi in her younger self and Bo Bardi herself through repeated and mirrored statements, different versions of Bo Bardi simultaneously utter statements reinforce the marvellously entangled nature of time. In the film, Julien cites Bo Bardi: ‘Linear time is a Western invention. Time is not linear; it is a marvellous entanglement.’ Although the score and choreography are beautiful and somewhat mesmerising, the real lure of the piece came derived from the beauty of Bo Bardi’s work and the tangible strength of her character.
Characterisation of figures living and dead, is another a vehicle that Julien uses repeatedly. Lessons Of The Hour (2019) is one of Julian’s more poetically enthused works in the show. In an exploration of the life and times of abolitionist Frederick Douglas (1818-1895), Julian uses some of his most potent words here. The piece traverses through moments of his life, particularly those he spent in the UK. The beauty of the British countryside which falsifies comfort throughout, only to then whiplash to the dangling of strange fruit, cotton, and imagery of traumatic histories of slavery. Undermining the sense of calm, Julien’s Douglas speaks of hope, change and the future. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the framing of the piece in histories of slavery, albeit conversations worthy of having, was somewhat triggering, which made this film perhaps the heaviest work in the show for me personally. In today’s day and age, the discussion of slavery deserves a trigger warning, and I prefer to centre Black joy rather than pain. Although the legacies of slavery are still felt today, financially and socially, something about looking back to that time to a Black viewer can have a sense of ‘here we go again’.
My discomfort of the emotional rollercoaster was swiftly remedied by the zen of Ten Thousand Waves (2010). This film is a response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004 and the confluence of contemporary Chinese culture and the ancient goddess Mazu. Julian explores themes around the human costs of the labour demands of the contemporary world. The myth of Mazu, the deity of seafarers, was that she would lead fishermen to safety. Julian’s personification of Mazu brings an element of the spiritual to the exhibition. Is Julien calling for higher ways of functioning, beyond intellect, beyond consumerism? A need for spiritual protection from our worst impulses as humans in the 21st century. In the film, Julian depicts Mazu soaring through the skies, blessing workers on their travels. The beauty of the landscape and the cool colour palette make room for contemplative and spiritual viewing.
Julien wonderfully navigates the overwhelming and sensory overload with works that, despite the often heavy topics, provide serenity and moments of meditative pleasure. His ability to delight through colour is evident in the sheer luminescence of the works, particularly in the film Lessons Of The Hour (2019), which required me to put my glasses on to shield myself from my astigmatism. The show is as equally visually interesting as it is mentally stimulating. I left the show wondering about the nature of subjectivity. Can we trust ourselves to have a singular perception of anything, and are our perceptions continuously plural? Julien is an artist who can start his career with what’s directly in front of him and expand to far-flung lands, different cultures and alternative plights, but still grounded in a watchful and protective eye. Sharing with us the stories of those worthy of protection.
The exhibition Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me, now on view at Tate Britain until 20 August 2023. For more information, please visit the Tate Britain website.
Jasmine Joy James
is a writer and curatorial practitioner based in London