Isaac Julien on Using the Gaps in Historical Archives as Springboards for Reinvention

The full title of the article by Precious Adesina (Artnet) is “‘It’s About Bringing Those Absences to Life:’ Isaac Julien on Using the Gaps in Historical Archives As Springboards for Reinvention.” British artist Isaac Julien, whose parents hail from St. Lucia, has his first major UK retrospective on view through August 20, 2023—“Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is to Me”—at Tate Britain, London.

When the British artist Isaac Julien released his 1989 film Looking for Langston, it was the height of the AIDS epidemic that disproportionately affected gay men. But despite undertones of the crisis being present throughout the 40-minute-long black and white video, Julien does not offer viewers a conventional depiction of the pain of the time, instead illustrating the beauty and magnificence of queer (especially Black, gay) relationships. Shots of men dancing, smoking or in moments of desire are interspersed with archival material, including a voiceover of a radio broadcast made after the death of the African American poet, writer and activist Langston Hughes, and readings of poetry by Hughes, Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill. 

Though Looking for Langston is the 63-year-old’s best-known film, Julien was already an integral figure in independent cinema before its release, noted for constantly pushing the boundaries between film and art. Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983) reflected on the death of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old who was fatally shot inside Stoke Newington Police Station in east London in 1983, and Territories (1984) critiqued traditional representations of Black culture, focussing particularly on Notting Hill Carnival. All three films, which exemplify the artist’s ability to fuse fiction and history, are included in the artist’s first major U.K. retrospective, titled “What Freedom Is To Me,” and on view at Tate Britain through August 20.

“When making a work, I like the idea of wearing the research lightly on your sleeve,” Julien told Artnet News, dressed in a ribbed black cardigan, white shirt, and dark skinny tie, at the art museum the afternoon before the opening of his exhibition. Looking for Langston explores the life of Hughes, who died in 1967 and was known for leading the Harlem Renaissance, a Black cultural movement that took place in New York from the late 1910s to the mid-1930s. Rather than presenting a biography or breakdown of who the artist was, Julien provides something that straddles history and fantasy, and attempts to capture the poet’s essence.

“His work is so incredibly rich,” said Nathan Ladd, co-curator of the exhibition, who has chosen to spotlight a number of pivotal video pieces by Julien from across his 40-year career. “With every work, you enter a world constructed by Julien, and within that world, because of the amount of references and ideas, there’s so much to get out of each one.”  

Ladd noted that “the collaging together of sound, archive, fiction, and history” in the films exhibited at Tate provides a deep and multilayered experience, each intentionally offering something that doesn’t sit neatly in a particular place or time.

When discussing his work, Julien particularly references the term “critical fabulation,” coined by Saidiya Hartman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Julien explains that it is the practice of using fictional narratives to fill in the blanks left in the knowledge of a particular time or person. “I think it is a really interesting way of describing the things I’ve been involved in doing for some time,” he said, noting that he has been considering how to utilize gaps in history since the early days of Sankofa Film and Video Collective, a group he co-founded in the 1980s, which was dedicated to developing independent Black film culture until it dissolved in the early 1990s. “I see those spaces [in our understanding of the past] as springboards for reinvention rather than reading them in a negative way,” Julien adds. “It’s about taking the archive and historical figures and bringing those absences to life in a critical way.” [. . .]

For full article and photos, see

[Photo above by Judith Burrows via Getty Images: Sir Isaac Julien portrait at his exhibition “what freedom is to me” at Tate Britain 2023.]

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