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Isaac Julien: Questioning and Subverting Identities in Flux
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Isaac Julien: Questioning and Subverting Identities in Flux

Picture of Shelton Lindsay
Updated: 21 December 2016
Known for provocative works that challenge assumptions about racial, gender and sexual identities, London based avant-garde filmmaker and mixed media artist Isaac Julien is an often overlooked contemporary voice. With his diverse portfolio of works, residencies and awards, Shelton Lindsay argues that Julien is a renaissance man worthy of our highest cultural accolades.

Isaac Julien’s site-specific immersive film installation opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on 25 November 2013. Entitled Ten Thousand Waves, the piece draws its inspiration from human tragedy — the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster in which more than 20 Chinese cockle pickers from Fujian province drowned off of England’s northwest coast. For the work, Julien then delves into Chinese mythology and lore, as well as China’s cinematographic history. We take a look back at this influential artist’s life and works.

Born in 1960, Julien spent his formative years in London where he still works and lives today. In 1984 he graduated from Central St Martins after studying fine art film as well as painting. While at St Martins, Julien and four other aspiring filmmakers (Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Nadine Marsh-Edwards and Robert Cruzs), all from the London area, set up the ‘Sankofa Film and Video Collective’. Composed of black men and women, the collective’s objective was to tell the story of their identity on their own terms and in their own way. Though they created fiction films, it is their avant-garde documentaries that the group is mainly known for. They utilised archival footage, monologues, evocative music, symbolic imagery, artful recreations and reports to synthesis and evoke their true understanding of what it meant to be black and British.

When speaking of the collective, Julien remarks that they only had ‘three ambitions: first to make films, second to create an intellectual context for their reception, and third to generate a discourse in that space.’ The poetic editing, non-linear methods of story telling and montage sequences became ways the group aimed to achieve this goal. By eschewing traditional film formats, they could ensure that their work would be radical in form as well as content.

In 1986, through the Sankofa collective, Julien and Maureen Blackwood wrote and directed The Passion of Remembrance –a multilayered story that explores issues of race and sexuality while depicting how the British government treats their minorities. This kaleidoscopic film helped to launch Julien’s career as an established filmmaker, and off the back of this success Julien continued to explore how he could deconstruct archetypal identity structures and subvert them through his art.

Three years later, in 1989, Julien released one of the films he is most famous for: Looking for Langston. A short avant-garde lyrical meditation on the life of Langston Hughes, a seminal author in the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, the work went on to win the Teddy Award for best short film at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival. In this film, Julien masterfully crafts a tale about the expression and power of desire. Looking for Langston portrays Hughes as a symbolic black gay cultural icon by interweaving his story with works of other artists, both contemporary and past, gay and straight. The film is expressly not a biography; it is more of a tribute and homage to the author as well as an exploration of the black gay experience. It brings to light issues of racism and homophobia, and intercuts these moments of oppression with erotic and arresting images of homosexual love and desire.

Like most of Julien’s works, Looking for Langston comprises a myriad of original and recycled materials. In addition to archival footage, Julien bends the distinction between cinema and photography by interspersing the film with some highly eroticised works of late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This playful melting of mediums is common to many of Julien’s work. Be it photography or archival news footage, his works always confront our understanding of ‘truth’ by bringing into question our relationship with images and identity.

After Looking for Langston Julien continued to explore notions of homosexuality, masculine gaze and suppressed desire in Young Soul Rebels (1991) and The Attendant (1993). More recently he has moved into the world of installation art. Though his life as a filmmaker is far from over, most of his latest works have been dominated by his mixed media video installations exploring art, artifice and space. In 2004 Julien released True North, a sound and visual piece inspired by Black American explorer Matthew Henson who was one of the first people to reach the North Pole. Drawing upon Henson’s diaries, True North contemplates histories and hierarchies, examining how Henson’s achievement as one of the first men to reach the North Pole is often eclipsed by the claims of his white counterpart Robert Peary (30 years after Peary’s death, Henson alleged in an interview that he was the first one to reach the pole.)

Ever playful and constantly wanting to challenge our gender assumptions, Julien cast hauntingly beautiful Vanessa Myrie as ‘Henson’ – actively disrupting our impressions of history and forcing the viewer to re-think the relation between fact and fiction and that liminal space between them both where reality may just lie.

More recently Julien worked on Ten Thousand Waves, an installation piece that weaves together stories of China’s past and present. Created with the help of numerous Chinese artists, Ten Thousand Waves had its UK premier at the Hayward Gallery in October 2010.

As a gay black artist, Julien is often pigeonholed as being the voice of that particular identity construction, and though much of his work deals with and focuses on this, he is adamant that he ‘speaks from that positionality not for it.’ Julien has been critically acclaimed for his engaging pieces, winning the Semaine de la Critique prize at Cannes for 1991’s Young Soul Rebels, and a nomination for theTurner prize in 2001 for The Long Road to Mazatlan. He continues to be a prolific artist whose work relentlessly questions the notion of identity in flux.

By Shelton Lindsay

Image courtesy: 1: Jere Keys/ WikiCommons, 2: Catch Fire, 3: Isaac Julien