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In this Western culture we have all grown up as snow queens—straights, as well as white queers—Western culture is in love with its own (white) image.

Isaac Julien

June 2022 will be a month to remember for filmmaker, installation artist, and cultural theorist Isaac Julien. Currently, he is Distinguished Professor of Arts at University of California, Santa Cruz, but teaching has not meant a slow down in his artistic output. Professor Julien’s new multi-screen installation opens this week at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. On June 19, Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation unveils a new commission to mark its centenary, Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) a five screen installation by Isaac Julien, focused on the creative relationship between contemporaries, Arthur C Barnes, and Alain Leroy Locke.

June 2022 will also be a memorable month for Professor Julien, as HM Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee honours included recognition in the form of a knighthood for the artist.

In tune with the artist’s ambition to operate across media and to breakdown boundaries between artforms, an image from Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement, features as a limited edition cover of June’s *Wallpaper magazine.

More and more people have come to recognise the importance of Isaac Julien as an artist, valuing his ability to draw upon global influences, creating works that use multiple media to tell universal, and at the same time, highly personal stories. In this most recent work, reflecting on the life and legend, of Brazilian architect and social activist, Lina Bo Bardi.

A founding member of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, Isaac has been at the forefront of art and film in Britain since graduating from Central Saint Martins in the 1980s. His first film, ‘Who Killed Colin Roach‘ (1983) voiced a direct challenge to the establishment, addressing the death of a young Black man at a police station, in the wake of the uprisings against police brutality and discriminatory over-reach that scarred the Black youth experience of inner city Britain in the early 1980s.

His 1989 documentary-drama Looking for Langston, reflecting on the Harlem Renaissance, poet Langston Hughes, and the silences around Black homosexuality, garnered Julien a deserved cult following. The film challenged audiences to engage with his developing style of enigmatic visual poetry. He has been able to revisit the work since, including a 2017 limited edition artist’s book and exhibition ‘I dream a world, Looking for Langston‘. In 2019, the work was added to the collection of Tate Britain.

As ever, resisting categorisation or demonstrating boundary-crossing talent, Isaac’s 1991 feature film, Young Soul Rebels won the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival, while making visible Black and queer lives, as part of London’s celebrations of an earlier royal jubilee.

Isaac’s works have followed his interest in film, identity, diaspora, and social activism, in visual poetry and boundary breaking art. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries across the globe, and continues to create works that delight and confound, works that continue to push at the boundaries of art in form and subject matter.

His 2019 work, Lessons of The Hour, focused on the remarkable life of abolitionist, orator, and internationally renown activist, Frederick Douglass (the most photographed man of the 19th century), continues to tour gallery spaces, but almost as if the gallery cannot quite contain the important dialogue he wishes to engage us in, the work finds ways to reach beyond those confines and grab our attention.

In October 2021, scenes from Lessons of the Hour also formed part of the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly Lights Commission, that was displayed on the huge screens around London’s Piccadilly Circus. Isaac was made a Royal Academician in 2018.

The award of such a well deserved honour is recognition of Isaac’s steadfast commitment to both his art and his truth. While still an art school student, he features in the free to view BFI archive film ‘Gay Black Group’, from 1983, where he is interviewed about his sexuality and how his ‘coming out’ has been accepted by those around him, including his family. The good humour and self belief that have been markers of his success since are clearly evident even at this early stage.

Congratulations, Sir Isaac.

  • Headline image taken from the catalogue for exhibition ‘Isaac Julien’ PUBLISHED BY IRISH MUSEUM OF MODERN ART / ÁRAS NUA-EALAÍNE NA H-ÉIREANN, 2005

Our honours system should be a source of pride for the whole country. One simple and symbolic change from Empire to Excellence will make sure it can be. 

Excellence not Empire

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