An extraordinary new book, Isaac Julien: Riot, by Isaac Julien with Cynthia Rose et al, celebrates the work of the artist and filmmaker, widely regarded as having played a pivotal role in that significant moment in British black and African art and, on a wider plane, the black diaspora arts when gay sexuality, masculinity and race exploded into the same visual frame.
It is the first overview of the British film artist’s career to date and includes, in addition to moving autobiographical texts, contributions by authoritative and academic associates and contemporaries.
Riot is published 27 January 2014 by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and distributed in Britain by Thames & Hudson.
Featuring contributions by Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, B. Ruby Rich, bell hooks, Mark Nash, Giuliana Bruno, Christine van Assche, Laura Mulvey and Stuart Hall, appears at the same time as Isaac Julien’s Playtime (a seven-screen installation) is on view (24 January to 1 March 2014) at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW, with accompanying photographic works at Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St George Street, London W1S 1FE.
Artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien played a pivotal role in that significant moment in the black diaspora arts when gay sexuality, masculinity and race exploded into the same visual frame. His first documentary, Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) grew out of the first Brixton riots while he was still a student at Saint Martins School of Art. He came to prominence with Looking for Langston (1989), which investigated the portrayal of desire, and more specifically black, gay desire, finding expression in fantasy rather than the real world.
Young Soul Rebels (1991), Julien’s only feature film to date, gives voice to a generation caught between multiple identities: that of the Caribbean diaspora, a contested Englishness and American, Caribbean and black British music.
“You can only make work that reflects what you believe in.”
From his very first films, Isaac Julien has shown an engagement with political and social reality: police violence and racism in Who Killed Colin Roach?; homophobia and the AIDS crisis in This is Not an AIDS Advertisement (1988) and the two-screened Trussed (1996); and issues of migration and belonging in the Expeditions installation trilogy (2004-07) and the Ten Thousand Waves multimedia installation (2010).
His work demonstrates a desire to intervene in political and cultural debates about racial representation and subjectivity (Mark Nash). At the same time, Julien’s work continues to express an utter devotion to seeing beauty as the essence of making any art.
All people, irrespective of race, class, gender, sexuality or nationality are in need of beauty to be fully self-actualized (bell hooks). “I want aesthetics to get in the way,” says Julien.
Julien sees the moving image as the primary way to reflect modernity. The film Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1996), changed the course of his work by combining several cinematic genres: documentary, interviews, cultural critics, archival film material and fictional elements.
An early installation, Vagabondia (2000) – one of two films for which he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001 – makes a direct link with film and museum by taking as its background the London space of the Sir Joan Soane Museum. Using the eccentric collection of the architect, Julien uses mirrored reflections of the architectural fragments, his ideas on colonialism and his own mother reading the Creole narration to create these archival reflections on screens that are both split and redoubled.
The moving image and the museum are, precisely, joined at the seams. In this intellectual and professional autobiography—the first to provide a career-long overview of the artist’s work—Julien narrates his voyage from documentary filmmaker to installation artist and outlines the progression of his artistic development, the media he uses and the people who have cooperated with him and influenced him. These are interlaced within the book with essays by collaborators, critics and social historians who provide analysis of his work and discuss his approach to both his media and the content he uses to express his ideas.
Julien’s deeply moving Ten Thousand Waves (9 x 2-sided screens) is on view in the D & C Marron Atrium at MoMA, New York until February 17, 2014.
Playtime (the seven screen installation) is on view from 24 January to 1 March 2014 at Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW, with accompanying photographic works at Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St George Street, London W1S 1FE.
Isaac Julien: Riot, by Isaac Julien with Cynthia Rose and contributions by Paul Gilroy, Kobena Mercer, B. Ruby Rich, bell hooks, Mark Nash, Giuliana Bruno, Christine van Assche, Laura Mulvey and Stuart Hall, is published 27 January 2014, by The Museum of Modern Art and distributed in Britain by Thames & Hudson, 248pp, 24.1 x 30.5cm, 310 colour and b&w illustrations, price £35 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-87070-887-9.