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Isaac Julien Portrait Photo Thierry Bal Web

Isaac Julien is an artist, filmmaker and critical thinker. Born in London in 1960, Julien’s body of work encompasses film, photography, installation and multiscreen presentations, and often deals with the complex interrelated systems of the historical record and contemporary culture. His latest work, Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2023) examines the relationship between Dr Albert C. Barnes, early US collector and exhibitor of African material culture, and Alain Locke, “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”, philosopher and cultural critic. The film and ten other works from Julien’s four-decades-long career were presented in the exhibition What Freedom Is to Me at the Tate Britain this year, asserting the centrality of Julien’s vision to contemporary art and cinema.

Portrait by Thierry Bal

THEASTER GATES Congratulations on your most recent film, and on the Tate – would you call it a retrospective?

ISAAC JULIEN Thank you so much. It is a kind of retrospective, but I’m in denial about my age. It’s been forty years and it went by so fast.

TG You’ve been at the vanguard of a very specific regime. Where did you begin?

IJ My filmmaking practice was very much inspired by early encounters with African American filmmakers like Julie Dash and Charles Burnett. I don’t think we would be able to conceive of a diasporic Black cinema without them. Then there were theorists like Teshome Gabriel who was central to the LA Rebellion at UCLA, which of course also included Haile Germina, Billy Woodbury, Charles Burnett, Dash and several other filmmakers. That whole contingent for me represented the possibilities of African American filmmaking.

TG Haile Gerima trained five or six generations of filmmakers.

IJ That’s right.

TG People like Bradford Young.

IJ I knew of Bradford Young early on, but I didn’t realise that Bradford Young was taught by Haile, and Bradford Young actually lived in London for a whole year as a student, where he worked with Menelik Shabazz and first met John Akomfrah. When I worked with him in 2021 on Once Again... (Statues Never Die), he had all of this critical Black knowledge, as well as being someone who had just shot a Star Wars [Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018]. He had a philosophical cinematographic interest and a historical and aesthetic range of inquiry.

TG This rapid-fire list of names feels indicative of the voraciousness and the veracity of the Black filmic exchange between the US and the UK at that time. It’s really beautiful to hear you say that some of your practice gives credence to Black American film and its theoretical context because I was a second- or third-generation Stuart Hall follower. The work that I’m trying to do on the South Side of Chicago has everything to do with reimagining a paradigm that I think Hall was trying to imagine – what the power of collectivism might do.

IJ If he was still alive he would have enjoyed meeting you and seeing your work. He was always in a critical dialogue, creating and shifting paradigms, both critically and representationally in terms of being able to create a language for interpolating theories and ideas. I remember very early encounters with [poet] Kathleen Collins who made a film called Losing Ground [1982], a fantastic film about the plight of African American artists. The internal debates that I consider myself privileged to have encountered were central to my formation. That included scholars like the late bell hooks, who was a close friend of mine, and to whom Statues Never Die is dedicated. She wrote a text called “Winter” for my exhibition catalogue for MoMA where she described us both being in New York in a winter snowstorm in the West Village. That text creates the finale of the piece, where we have [actor] André Holland in descending and ascending snow.

TG bell was revolutionary in that she didn’t always use academic theoretical language, but offered a new radical reality in grounded writing that was deeply informed.

IJ That was precisely related to the subject areas she wrote about, like Black love, and also very much thinking about questions surrounding Black subjectivity – the “structures of feeling”, to use a Raymond Williams term that Stuart Hall used quite often, the “psychic make-up of Black subjectivity”.

TG I remember going to Brixton and East London in the early 1990s when I was a young undergraduate, but take me back to before then, when Brixton was still Black Brixton but change was in the air. What conditions birthed your artistic practice as this young St Lucian, a first-generation badass? Can you talk about being Black in London?

IJ By 1989 I felt like there was a version of the Harlem Renaissance beginning to blossom in the UK and particularly in London, and in a way Looking for Langston [1989] was giving visual form to that. But if I backtrack to the very early 1980s after the Brixton riots in 1981, it was a time where there was new recognition of the disparities in the social experiences of Black and white people, especially around policing. I was involved in the Sankofa Film and Video Collective alongside Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Nadine Marsh-Edwards and Robert Crusz. We were younger artists of colour all thinking about questions of policing and surveillance and reflecting on how these phenomena are internalised. It produced a number of responses, including the film Who Killed Colin Roach? that I made in 1983 about the death of a young Black man in police custody. All of the questions that still haunt British and America institutions such as the police were present for us because they were a daily encounter and those encounters became symbolic themes in our work. Our next work Territories in 1984 looked at the way in which the policing of [Notting Hill] Carnival as an aesthetic cultural event was the centre of a visual translation of the Black sonic into the symphonic. There we were trying to use the visual language of [Soviet film directors Sergei] Eisenstein and [Dziga] Vertov: an untarred cinematic language embedded with the carnivalesque.

TG People sometimes refer to your practice as documentary filmmaking, but I think the devices that you’re using have always been outside the remit of the documentary maker. Does that stem from your background in painting and sculpture?

IJ Yes, my most recent work, Once Again... (Statues Never Die), is about sculpture and indeed a homage to a queer African American sculptor, Richmond Barthé, who was incredibly famous in his time. We were looking at the way in which art history was taught to us when we were at art school – if we go right back to these very key moments of so-called Modernism, there was always a Black intervention being made and particularly an African American intervention. The Harlem Renaissance was this cultural explosion and a revolution in consciousness and aesthetics, and in the mid-1980s these transatlantic dialogues were developing.

TG You were synthesising all of this, alongside grappling with your identity as a young man.

IJ Completely. All those works were in dialogue with others – we wouldn’t really have Looking for Langston without Julie Dash’s Illusions [1982]. My early encounter with Julie Dash and Arthur Jafa involved talking about the politics and aesthetics of Black filmmaking in terms of the construction of images and lighting, and the ways in which we can begin to form a new Black language that better enables a fruition of aesthetics.

TG While the 1980s laid the groundwork for these new expressions, it felt like you had to absolutely hit the issue of race dead on, which was a complicated thing to do as a Black British filmmaker. It was not in vogue to out Great Britain as a place where racism existed. I can remember my friends saying, “You Black Americans, you’re still stuck in this racism shit – when are you going to let it go? Here in London, Black people have moved on.” I feel like there’s been a kind of growth in the British community, so now they’re just like, shit is bad.

IJ This is something I have been thinking about in relation to the insistence in some artists’ work on slavery and its psychic ramifications, like in Kara [Walker’s] work where it’s expressed in this signature black and white silhouetted relief, sculptured drawings. Then I think of Glenn [Ligon]’s work with its repeated text. It wasn’t until I lived on the West Coast during the pandemic that I was able to understand the ways in which these questions have been deposited over a longer period of time. The film I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck is about the fact that the 1950s still haunts us in the present. That’s why there is this insistency often in the work of African American artists in relationship to these questions, an insistency not born of obsession or pathology but a continued reality. Paul Gilroy wrote the first chapter for my MoMA book, Riot, called “From Bad to Worse”. And I remember thinking, oh my God, this is such a depressing opening for the book. Paul was, in his prophetic manner, right – things have gone from bad to worse. We have MPs of colour and a prime minister of colour who are lending support to the most atrocious laws against the movements of people of colour in this country, on our little Brexit island.

TG I want to talk to you about building the collective. I had this kind of temporary project that I was doing called the Black Artists Retreat, which took its cues from Deborah Willis’s Black portraiture, and I think that the Sankofa Film and Video Collective is also in this history of independent organising around a genre or milieu or a common set of values.

IJ When I was a student at Central Saint Martins School of Art, there weren’t many other Black students around and my colleagues in other universities were having similar experiences, so we came together. I had been exposed to collective practice through an earlier generation of filmmakers like The Newsreel Film Collective. During this period in film culture there was an active workshop-collective culture, and Sankofa got commissioned by Channel Four for a programme of films. And this inspired other collectives like the Black Audio Film Collective, the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop, and Retake, the Asian film collective. In the 10 year period between 1982 and 1992, in Sankofa – because our collective was about multi-authorship – Martina Attille made a film called Dreaming Rivers [1988], Maureen Blackwood made Perfect Image [1988], Robert Crusz made In Between [1992], I made Young Soul Rebels [1991]. There was a prolonged deep encounter with one another in terms of making work and supporting each other but also trying to create a certain sort of consciousness and culture along with other collectors towards what we saw as an independent Black film culture.

TG When it comes to the work itself, you’re a master of the technical, so not only is the work poetic, but precise and particular.

IJ I have lots of people that help me do that. I have a collective enterprise of people who have collaborated on my work: Adam Finch, editor; Nina Kellgren, photographer. We have all the apparatus that you need to make the work because I’m so un-technical!

TG But the technical aspect comes from the way that it surrenders itself to this beautiful, sensitive set of narratives. The archive is part of a living, powerful memory apparatus. Even though it may not have a spatial or institutional home, we carry the archive of Black film, music and friendship in our bodies. When you mention Glenn Ligon or David A. Bailey or Martina Attille, it allows us not only to remember the important work of Haile Gerima but it conjures them, so that the lives that could become small as they are forgotten are kept big. When I think about the Otolith Group and the newer, Black and brown British creatives, the Black Audio Film Collective is the progenitor to all of that.

IJ One of the things that’s been really fantastic about the Tate exhibition has been these dialogues. This week we had a panel on What Freedom Is to Me and we invited Jennifer Gonzalez from the States, but also a few colleagues, including my partner and collaborator Mark Nash who I’ve been in conversation with for a long time. And the first rows were mainly Black critics and artists, and that meant you had different questions. It’s moving to think about the idea of passing on that archive and how it can create an intergenerational encounter. What is in that archive is going to be our future. ◉