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Review: Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me


Isaac Julien, Freedom / Diasporic Dream-Space No. 1 (Once Again...Statues Never Die), 2022 Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag. Framed: 273 x 183 x 5.6 cm (107 1/2 x 72 x 2 1/4 in) © Isaac Julien. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

As a London-born filmmaker and installation artist who has been working since the 80s, a retrospective in Isaac Julien’s home country was long overdue. Tate Britain’s ‘What Freedom Is To Me’ is the largest exhibition of his work to date, in which viewers encounter seven of his films in six separate installations.

The first installation features Julien’s latest film, ‘Once Again… (Statues Never Die)’ (2022), and is perhaps the most arresting in the whole exhibit. Immediately, the museum itself is established as a space that makes Julien’s work possible, but is not a home without tension. ‘Once Again…’ stages a dialogue between critic Alain Locke and art collector Albert Barnes on the African art Barnes added to his collection in the 1920s, examining its relationship to the Western canon. Interspersed with footage from Nii Kwate Owoo’s ‘You Hide Me’ (1970), which makes an argument for the repatriation of the Benin bronzes, ‘Once Again…’ also draws on Julien’s own ‘Looking for Langston’ (1989; shown later in the exhibition), allowing the viewer to locate both an attention to sensuality and politics in the film. Black queer desire is centre stage, as Locke and artist Richmond Barthé are caught in encounters rich with eroticism. Projected onto five double-sided screens, surrounded by mirrors and scattered with sculptures by Barthé and Matthew Angelo Harrison, the installation fosters the drifting, dream-like form of Julien’s film, allowing the eye, and viewer, to slip between screens, into the ruptures and flows of ‘Once Again…’.

The exhibition space, designed by Julien with architect David Adjaye, foregrounds the mobility of the spectator, recasting the relationship between viewer and screen. Cloistered away from the rest of the Tate Britain, each installation branches off from a central hub, a constellation through which visitors can move at will. Through Julien’s works, the museum becomes an archive to be ransacked and re-appropriated in the quest to locate Black identity, Black desire, and a Black queer tradition.

‘Vagabondia’ (2000), the last installation before the exit, frames this engagement with the museum – filmed in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and set to a narration in Creole, voiced by Julien’s mother, a curator invents histories for the items in the collection, observing, or imagining, a Regency dancer moving through the rooms. Dreamlike and un-subtitled, the hazy, highly saturated colours of the film contrast with the slick, black-and-white movement of ‘Once Again…’.

Elsewhere, Julien’s 2019 ‘Lessons of the Hour’, another stand-out of the exhibition, plays over screens hung in nineteenth-century salon-style, placing shots of abolitionist Frederick Douglass (played by Ray Fearon) next to sweeping views of the Scottish landscape, where Douglass spent time in his campaign against slavery. Reproducing Douglass’ speech ‘Lecture on Pictures’, in which he considers the power of photography in abolitionist politics, Julien moves between the semi-imagined life of Douglass and scenes of racial trauma and enslavement, sliding seamlessly between past and present.

A preoccupation with time, in all its twists and flows, is exemplified in ‘Lino Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement’ (2019), which explores the life and work of Lina Bo Bardi, an architect famous for her designs in Brazil. Blending dance and choreography with footage of Bo Bardi’s buildings, Julien blurs the boundaries between disciplines. Linear time is held in suspension; Bo Bardi is played by two different actresses (Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres), sometimes simultaneously, at different points in her life. Julien’s engagement with her concept of time, a ‘marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end’, provides a neat encapsulation of Julien’s style, in which linear narrative is secondary to connective possibilities and the excavation of cultural memory.

In another room, an installation combines ‘Western Union: small boats’ (2007) and its companion piece ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ (2010), exploring the movement of peoples across borders. ‘Ten Thousand Waves’, made in response to the 2004 drowning of 23 Chinese cockle pickers who were caught in the tide, is expansive in its range, at times too expansive. The blend of emergency-service footage of the disaster with the fable of goddess Mazu at times undercuts itself, despite its beauty and emotional power.

Julien’s style, which freely mixes documentary with imagined historical and contemporary scenes, is established in perhaps his most famous work, ‘Looking for Langston’ (1989), shown here in a single screen installation. A meditation on poet Langston Hughes, Julien attempts to mine the archive to find and represent traces of Black queer desire within a semi-imagined Harlem Renaissance. Dreamy, with sensuality frequently bleeding into the erotic, the full poetic force of Julien’s style can be felt throughout.

The exhibition at Tate Britain pulls together a compelling selection from Julien’s over 40-year career. Committed to what Derek Jarman termed ‘political lyricism’, Julien centres pleasure in his politics, the pleasure of the image and of the screen – aiming always for the beauty of critique.

'Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me' is at the Tate Britain until 20th August.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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