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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Isaac Julien: A Visionary Journey Through Time and Identity

Isaac Julien’s multi-screen installation catches the attention of many people, offering them a compelling message through music and filmography.
Jinha Yoo
In Isaac Julien’s ‘Once Again… (Statues Never Die),’ singer and songwriter Alice Smith appears on screen, embodying the act of political resistance.

As I wandered along the beautiful installations of the Whitney Museum of American Art, a subtle murmur caught my attention from the corner of the room. Entering a gallery surrounded in darkness, I felt a sense of thrill run down my spine as I took my first step inside, unaware that my perception of filmography was about to change forever.

The one art that stood out to me was created by Isaac Julien, one of the leading artists working in film and video today. Julien creates multi-screen installations and photographs that incorporate different artistic disciplines to design a poetic and unique visual experience.

His interest in filmography was ignited in his youth. Julien was born in 1960 in London, one of five children of parents who migrated to Britain from Saint Lucia, a country in the Caribbean. His involvement with the Four Corners Films, the Newsreel Collective, and the London Youth Dance Theatre offered him an early exposure to the world of art. 

In 1983, while studying painting and fine art film at St Martin’s School of Art, Isaac Julien co-founded ‘Sankofa Film and Video Collective,’ a film and video collective dedicated to developing an independent black film culture in the areas of production, exhibition, and audience. The collective aimed to offer their viewers a new perspective on race, gender, sexuality, and British culture and history that radically subverted the white, Eurocentric gaze.

There, Julien co-directed Sankofa’s highest-profile production, The Passion of Remembrance. By interweaving two narrative threads – the life of a man and woman living in the U.K. and the lives of the Baptiste family three decades ago – the film ambitiously explores themes of racism, homophobia, sexism, and generational tensions, uncovering the reality Black British families have experienced over the years. In this film, he stresses the importance of addressing questions of sexuality and gender in tandem with issues of race and class, which passes down to one of his most famous works: Looking for Langston.

Here is a portrait of Langston Hughes, a black American poet and activist. He is depicted in Julien Isaac’s debut film, Looking for Langston. (Photo Credit: Anonymous, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Julien’s most well-known film Looking for Langston gathered the artist a cult following. Released in 1989, the documentary-drama explores author Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Interestingly, Julien describes the film as neither a documentary nor a narrative. Instead, he views his work as a meditation on the gay black American poet Langston Hughes and the repressed lives of similar artists who lived beyond the public gaze.

The film opens with strikingly bold scenery as it begins with the words from Hughes’ memorial mass over an image of the dead artist in his coffin. The artist is played by Isaac Julien himself, emphasizing the personal nature of the film. It establishes Julien as a gay black artist in his own right, echoing the words of his predecessor when he states, “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”

We then follow the camera into the underworld of all male, mainly black homosexual Harlem society from the 1920s to the 1950s and beyond. The individual voices from the icons of the Harlem Renaissance are heard in the film – Bruce Nugent’s justification of closeted lives, Essex Hemphill’s poetry, James Baldwin’s lyrical sensitivity, and Langston Hughes’ song-like verse – with Julien’s images providing a personal interpretation of each artist’s voice.

The story behind the film makes his work even more profound as it was made during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a historical event that was devastating to the queer community. Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, LGBTQ activists nationwide achieved notable civil rights progress and some protections against discrimination in public employment by the state. By 1980, around two dozen states had decriminalized sodomy, and some activists were already discussing the next major goal: legal recognition of marriage.

However, almost right after the emergence of HIV cases in Los Angeles and New York, the gay rights movement encountered a reactionary backlash from figures such as Anita Bryant and Reverend Jerry Falwell, whose “Moral Majority” (an American political organization founded based on conservative ideals to combat “amoral liberals”) aggressively opposed granting rights to gay individuals. HIV was rebranded as the ‘gay plague’ or even called the ‘gay syndrome’ as the government tried to silence the LGBTQ community and criminalize homosexuality.

Ironically, the release of Looking for Langston reflects the historical timeline as the film was censored by Hughes’s estate and its executor, George Bass, Hughes’ former secretary. He believed that Julien was exploiting Hughes’ controversial rumors surrounding his sexuality for commercial use.

By claiming copyright infringement, he was able to have the readings of Hughes’ work removed from the festival screening of the film. The censoring of the two scenes featuring Hughes reading his work in front of a jazz band for a ’50s TV show actually reinforces the point of how much silence and repression exists around the gay presence in the black community. The audience clearly understood why the poet’s lips were moving but the words were snatched away.

Though a controversial film, Looking for Langston has shown its significance as it served as a space for the black community to openly discuss their identity and sexuality. As Essex Hemphill, a poet and performer who openly voiced his opinions during the epidemic, said, “This is an incredibly important film because it discusses the issue of sexuality within the black community.”

The film’s exploration of desire became a hallmark of what B. Ruby Rich called the New Queer Cinema, a significant milestone in African American studies. Ultimately, the film helped Julien establish a unique method of expanded biography in which he reimagined historical Black figures and renewed their narratives.

One of his recent works that used this method is the Lessons of the Hour (2019). In Lessons of the Hour, Julien presents an immersive portrait of Frederick Douglass, African American abolitionist, statesman, and former slave. In 1838, Douglass gained his freedom from chattel slavery and became one of the most important orators and writers of the 19th century.

Frederick Douglass was one of the most important leaders of the movement for African-American civil rights in the 19th century. (Photo Credit: Engraved by J.C. Buttre from a daguerreotype, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

His work of multi-screening video installation comes here as the film is displayed from 10 screens of varying sizes. By fusing image, word, and sound, Julien depicts Douglass and other prominent figures of his time as pioneers in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. Lessons of the Hour demonstrates a central thesis of Julien’s wider practice, his “desire to reinvestigate the archive to articulate contemporary concerns.”

Julien displays Douglass giving out speeches such as his infamous “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1852) and “Lecture on Pictures” (1861). Through Douglass’s perspective, Julien provides a keen exploration of contemporary political activism and the ongoing struggle to protect civil rights in the U.S. and around the world.

There are multiple techniques used in this piece that makes this film so incredible, one of which being “horizontal montage,” a way to explore nonlinear storytelling in the editing of the film and the spatial environment of the installation. For example, when Douglass, played by actor Ray Fearon, first comes to the screen, he appears in only two of the screens from different angles. The other screens instead display repeating and mirrored images of orange and yellow leaves from tree limbs.

Shortly after, Douglass looks up to one of the trees, and another small screen shows a foot hanging from one of the branches. This lynching scene is from Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Within Our Gates (1920). By interrupting the bright colors of the installation with grainy, black and white footage, it separates the historical setting of the two screens while simultaneously connecting the past and present. The selection of montaged elements in the film also references one of the themes of Douglass’s final major speech — the horrific lynchings of Black men spreading across the country. The film’s title, Lessons of the Hour, takes its name from this renowned speech.

The work includes albumen silver print portraits of Douglass, pamphlets of his speeches, first editions of his memoirs, a facsimile of a rare manuscript laying out his ideas about photography, and a specially designed wallpaper composed of period newspaper clippings, broadsides, magazine illustrations, and scrapbook pages. These objects reveal how Douglass’s image and words circulated in the transatlantic, 19th-century world, and also bear out Julien’s insight in Lessons of the Hour: that Douglass’s ideas about citizenship, democracy, and human dignity remain timeless.

We can see a lot of his work covering the theme of African American history and culture as seen in his other piece, Once Again… (Statues Never Die), which is also the film that made my jaw drop in awe. The work explores the relationship between Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who was an early U.S. art collector and exhibitor of African material culture, and the famed philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, commonly known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” 

Also known as the “Dean of the Harlem Renaissance,” Alain L. Locke promoted the aesthetic value of African art and urged African American artists to find inspiration in it through collecting, critiques, and patronage of the art world. (Photo Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“This project explores Dr. Barnes and Alain Locke’s storied relationship, its mutually formative critical dialogue, and its significant impact on their work as cultural critics, educators, organizers, and activists on behalf of various African American causes,” said Julien.

The film also employs Julien’s “horizontal montage” technique, utilizing five wall-sized screens displaying black and white videos. It engages with contemporary debates on colonialism and the display of African material culture in European museums, drawing inspiration from the 1953 film by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die). This groundbreaking film, which was banned shortly after its release in France due to its anti-colonial sentiment, raised critical questions about the acquisition and exhibition of African artworks in European museums.

Once Again… (Statues Never Die) explores Alain Locke’s engagement with the Barnes collection, honoring both Locke’s contribution to the arts while also showing how African material culture influenced the Black cultural movement. The installation spotlights Dr. Barnes’s subsequent writings on the meaning and value of African culture and its import to the African diaspora, which were reproduced in Harlem Renaissance periodicals including Opportunity.

As Locke visits the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, where he was the first African American Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in 1907, his image appears reflected in the glass vitrines holding African art. On another screen, an African curator simultaneously tours the same museum in a different time zone that is much closer to now. As she sees the reflection of Locke, the scene echoes the questions he raised with Barnes during their collaboration: what does it mean to interpret Black art, and how does that impact archival memory?

“The contemporaneous question is brought to us not by Locke, not by Barnes, but by the Black female African curator, who has an altogether different view,” Julien said in his phone call with Vogue. “The point of view is from the West. The gaze is not a Western gaze.”

Locke’s complexity also serves as a coda to Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston. Through Locke’s perspective, we ultimately arrive at the work of Richmond Barthé, a gay man whom Locke admired both romantically and as a sculptor. Barthé’s work symbolized, for Locke, a new artistic horizon.

Richmond Barthé was an American sculptor who was a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance. The installation of Once Again…(Statues Never Die) includes his sculptures. (Photo Credit: National Archives at College Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“Barthé,” says Thom Collins, the director of the Barnes, “was one of the visual artists to realize what, for Locke, became an idealized expression that wedded European modernist aesthetics and an African diaspora aesthetic with the consideration of African material culture.”

The work ends with a mesmerizing interplay of time, depicted through scenes of falling snow and lines from bell hooks as Locke narrates, “As we mature as artists in the mystical diasporic dream-space, a culture of infinite possibility is ready to receive us. This is artistic freedom as pure and unsullied as falling snow.”

Following this, singer and songwriter Alice Smith appears, singing as she ascends steep stairs in an elegant lobby. She reflects, “I’ve spent so many days and nights, tried in so many ways to change my situation,” before singing in the most beautiful voice I have ever heard, “Oh, I go beyond everything that I’ve ever seen, beyond everywhere that I’ve ever been. And I won’t apologize ’cause I’m making a new way for us once again.”

As Isaac Julien continues to push the boundaries of video art and installation, his work remains a testament to the power of visual storytelling in shaping our understanding of history, identity, and culture. His profound explorations of the African diaspora, his reimagining of historical figures, and his relentless challenge of societal norms not only enrich the artistic landscape but also compel us to question our own perceptions and biases.

Julien’s art is more than a mirror reflecting the past; it is a lens magnifying the urgent issues of our time. As we navigate an era marked by social upheaval and cultural redefinition, Julien’s work stands as a beacon, urging us to confront the uncomfortable truths and embrace the transformative potential of art.

In the end, the question remains: are we, as viewers and as a society, ready to fully engage with the dialogues Julien initiates, to move beyond passive consumption, and to become active participants in the creation of a more inclusive and just future? The challenge is not just to watch, but to see – to truly see the world through the open, multifaceted lens that Isaac Julien so masterfully presents.

As Isaac Julien continues to push the boundaries of video art and installation, his work remains a testament to the power of visual storytelling in shaping our understanding of history, identity, and culture. His profound explorations of the African diaspora, his reimagining of historical figures, and his relentless challenge of societal norms not only enrich the artistic landscape but also compel us to question our own perceptions and biases.

About the Contributor
Jinha Yoo, Staff Reporter
Jinha Yoo is a Staff Reporter for ‘The Science Survey.’ She utilizes the power of storytelling not only to inform people about the topics she deeply cares about but also to provoke interest and curiosity among readers. Jinha believes that the allure of journalistic photography lies in its ability to capture the raw, unfiltered moments of reality. She appreciates the beauty of photography as it freezes emotions, expressions, and events in time, conveying powerful stories without the need for words. Outside of school Jinha enjoys listening to music, coding, and taking photos. Jinha is also a part of Key Club and the Model UN team. In college, Jinha plans to pursue a career in the medical field.