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Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me (Paperback)

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Stretching out in all directions via short hallways are the individual screening rooms for the films. People’s looks started to change slightly when African populations began to grow within these vicinities,” he notes. This is what I will take back to the Soane, and to Bo Bardi’s buildings should I have the opportunity to visit them in the future. Throughout “What Freedom is to Me” (the title is taken from Nina Simone), which assembles eleven films from Julien’s four decades of work, the museum recurs as both a lush setting and a problem to be worked through. In Lina Bo Bardi—A Marvellous Entanglement, the movements of a diaphanous twirling dancer in red mimic the curves of a spiral staircase the architect designed for the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia in Salvador, Brazil, as if the dancer had channeled the spirit of architecture.

One disappointment was the squeezing of four of his early 1980s films, produced as part of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, into the echoey corridor outside the entrance to the show, so that the textural experimentation and biting critique of Britain in Territories (1985) are difficult to hear and feel. Recent international solo and group exhibitions include Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME, PalaisPopulaire, Germany; Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA (2023); Isaac Julien: Once Again… (Statues Never Die), Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour - Frederick Douglas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA; Isaac Julien, Goslar Kaiserring, Mönchehaus Museum, Goslar, Germany; Details of Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 – 1971, Academy Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA (2022). The more so because this film is a requiem, of sorts, for the 23 Chinese cocklepickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004.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. In Ten Thousand Waves, the similarly ethereal sea goddess Mazu floats over cities and through clouds, eventually alighting on a contemporary skyscraper. The Isaac Julien retrospective, What Freedom Means to Me, currently showing at Tate Britain, includes six films selected from across his more than thirty-year career.

They narrate from Bo Bardi’s writing, “Linear time is a Western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvelous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end. One solitary figure stands at the edge of the sea, the sole survivor of the Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives there in 2004. Filmed in the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the piece also interrogates the role of such institutions in light of current restitution debates. Even though I go on to make other works, which perhaps are concerned with different themes […] connected to art and modernism, or migration movements, or the museum itself, they’re still connected to these kinds of early works which, for me, have become foundational,’ Julien explains.

This is echoed in the plinths on which the screens are balanced, which resemble those in the São Paulo Museum of Art. On the eve of this landmark exhibition, Julien is a calm, thoughtful presence, happy to dive into any aspect of his eclectic body of work. Locke appears in dialogue with Albert Barnes (played by Danny Huston), debating the status of the African art Barnes bought for his collection in the 1920s, which “is in danger of becoming a fashion or fad”.

A lot of the works which I’ve been involved in making over the years are really about trying to create this almost haptic relationship to the image or a feeling,” Julien, 63, tells me in a sunlit room a few floors up, which overlooks the Thames. While the ten screens of Lessons of the Hour seek to imitate the disorienting variety of paintings of different size and genre one sees in a salon-style hang in a pre-Modernist gallery, Once Again…(Statues Never Die) uses five large screens, mylar wall mirroring, and the sculptures of Richmond Barthé and Matthew Angelo Harrison to generate a dystopian museum space. Rediscovered prints Julien took on the day of the protest form a collage along a wall of the studio.Nowhere is this manifestation of the aural more powerful than in Julien’s homage to the American abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass, Lessons of the Hour FIG.

Isaac Julien presents 11 films at Tate Britain with a combined running time so voluminous you might want to make a day of it, with respite for lunch. It is difficult within the scope of a review like this to take on such an expansive subject, including, as was pointed out to me on Twitter by Adam Nathaniel Furman, the architect’s more controversial political allegiances. Looking for Langston incorporates footage of the opening of an exhibition at the Harmon Foundation, New York, of work by African American artists, including Lois Mailou Jones (1905–98), which was attended by such illustrious figures as Palmer Hayden and James A.Looking for Langston was shown at the Barbican in 2020, and it was startling when Todd Terry’s 1988 acid house classic Can You Party? Founded by Julien in the summer of 1983 with art students Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz and Nadine Marsh-Edwards, this group from across the African, Asian and Caribbean diaspora played a vital role in the establishment of Black independent cinema in the UK. In the wider perspective of the exhibition, the early works are sidelined in favor of a selection of his more finished and cinematographic work ranging from 1989 to the present. in London) reveals the breadth of a groundbreaking oeuvre from its emergence in the 1980s to the present.

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