I first came across the work of Isaac Julien when I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at UEA and did a module on black British film. In the early 90s, there wasn’t much of it about, so Young Soul Rebels, a sassy coming-of-age thriller that examines the interaction between skinheads, punks and Soul Boys, stood out. Fast forward three decades and Isaac Julien now has a major retrospective at Tate Britain. An immersive experience that, with style and grace, examines the thorny and complex subjects of colonialism, cultural appropriation and the gay gaze. All of the work on show is, in some way, political, but it’s never didactic. That’s its strength. The multi-screens woo the viewer in with their gorgeous imagery, never allowing for a singular viewpoint. Images come and go like dreamscapes, so the viewer feels as if they’re slipping through a kaleidoscope of shadows, shifting lights and falling snow.
Walking into a room full of screens and mirrors is disorientating. We cannot quite tell where we are. In Once Again…(Statues Never Die) Isaac Julien explores the terrain of the museum. We encounter the dapper figure of Alain Locke, philosopher, art historian, champion of the Harlem Renaissance and the first African American to hold a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University. As he wanders among a maze of Victorian glass cabinets, he examines the ‘exotic’ artefacts plundered from indigenous people and displayed (originally) without any reference to their cultural purpose. Interwoven with this are shots of him in Philadelphia’s Barnes Collection in a sort of Socratic dialogue with the businessman and art collector Arthur C. Barnes. Interwoven with archival footage from the 1970s shot by the Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo, we see him silently delving into museum storage boxes to unwrap from their sheets of polythene, exquisite carved African heads. But housed in a Western museum, these have been severed from their spiritual roots to become artefacts devoid of meaning, prized emblems of colonialism. Running through all this is the potent voice of the jazz singer Alice Smith in what begins to sound like a lament.
There is a vast body of work in this exhibition. All of which is made to the highest filmic standards. Central, perhaps, is the mesmerising Looking for Langston, originally released at the height of the AIDS pandemic in 1989. Shot it in black and white, it is a meditation on the life and desires of the African American poet Langston Hughes. A groundbreaking exploration of the ‘queer’ gaze, it became a cult film. Young, mostly beautiful men – both black and white – clad in evening dress dance together, sip champagne and exchange lingering looks. Although the subject is ostensibly Hughes, there’s a eulogy to that great writer James Baldwin. In the deep shadows, a young black man pulls petals from a white rose – reminding us of the stylish fin de siècle decadence of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Shapes come and go like phantoms. Bodies create sculptural shapes that might be hewn from stone. All is executed with finesse and delicacy, creating a series of languid, sensual scenes. Even when men watch porn, the film is not explicit, so we are seduced by the heady beauty of it all. Other moments take place in parks and cemeteries. Desire and yearning are relegated to the sidelines, pushed into the shadows. As a cis white middle-class woman, it gave me a glimpse into the world of gay desire with both poetry and poignancy.
The epigraph of the exhibition is a line of a song by Nina Simone “I’ll tell you what Freedom is to me. No Fear”. Frederick Douglass was an orator, human-rights campaigner and philosopher. A freed slave who dedicated his life, his prodigious intellect and moral standing to inspire audiences on the subject of Black liberation. For Julien Black, heroism is a potent theme. Here we see the handsome and eloquent Douglass addressing his Edinburgh audience, rousing them to sympathy for his cause, the fight against enslavement. Intercut with these scenes are images of historical and political injustices from both past and present. At one point, the beautifully dressed Douglass takes off his blue jacket and removes his shirt to show the scars left by the lash. This web of images and memories emphasises the words of Lina Bo Bardi, taken from the 2019 film – A Marvellous Entanglement – that, “Linear time is a western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning and end.”
Isaac Julien’s ideas tumble forth like the Niagara Falls. It’s as if he is trying to frame all the ills of both history and these dystopian times. His films seem to say – look, it was/is like this. This is what happened. This is how it feels. His genius is that he never alienates, so that the misery at the core of Western Union: Small Boats 2007 – with its carcasses of small craft washed up on a beach like lives destroyed by dangerous migrations, and a Thousand Waves 2010, made in response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004 when 23 people from China drowned as they gathered cockles off the north-west coast of England – feel like universal tragedies. His multi-screen technique places the viewer inside the artwork. Beauty, memory and the power of the camera are his weapons. We thus become both complicit with and the subject of what is taking place, an integral part of these debates on race, sex, the spiritual and political. Isaac Julien’s carefully crafted, beautiful films remind us that there’s never a single viewpoint but multiple interchangeable identities. As that great American poet, Walt Whitman wrote: “(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023
ISAAC JULIEN WHAT FREEDOM IS TO ME Tate Britain UNTIL 20 AUGUST 2023
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and art critic. Her collection of poems,
Radium Dreams is on show at The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, with
artwork by Eileen Cooper. Her collection of poems on the life of Gwen John, God’s Little
An artist is due later this year from Seren. Flatlands, her fourth novel, is to be published by
Pushkin Press in June. www.suehubbard.com