Isaac Julien started his career in one of the small, politicised film collectives that were a feature of the British art and film scene in the early Thatcher years. Sankofa, which he co-founded with a group of other young Black film activists in 1983 – while still a student at St Martin’s School of Art – typified the phenomenon. They addressed issues they believed to be of urgent concern to “the masses” – racism, police brutality, LGBT+ identity and rights – in terms that were uncompromisingly experimental. Budgets were minuscule, and the possibilities for exhibition limited to community centres, tiny arthouse cinemas and, if they were extremely lucky, late-night screenings on the newly created Channel 4.
A quick wind forward to now, and Julien, born in 1960, is a Knight of the Realm (created in the Queen’s platinum jubilee honours for “breaking down barriers between artistic disciplines”) with a Tate Britain retrospective on his hands. Mainstream cultural acceptance doesn’t come much more resounding than that. Yet walking through this undeniably exciting – indeed, essential – exhibition, I couldn’t help wondering if a few key things had got lost sight of along the way.
The exhibition takes the form of a set of interrelated and interconnected multiscreen installations, which are entered first through his latest work Once Again... (Statues Never Die) (2022), which sets the tone. A response to Chris Marker’s seminal 1953 documentary about African art and colonialism, Statues Also Die, it centres on a fictional conversation on the nature of “primitivism”, modern art and cultural ownership between the celebrated white American collector Albert C Barnes and the Harlem Renaissance philosopher Alain Locke. Filmed in Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation museum in the depths of winter, it’s technically stunning. No grubby early 1980s video or Super 8mm here. The black and white screens, all showing different images, are arranged through the space in a quasi-sculptural, walk-through arrangement, reflected on the mottled stainless walls to quite dazzling effect. And, this being an Isaac Julien film, homoeroticism plays a part: Black male bodies, in both statue and real-life form, are blended into the film with consummate elegance.
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