NRC – Isaac Julien

NRC | Sandra Smets | 1 december 2016

Nude men in bed, stroking chests, legs and bottoms 
Isaac Julien made a velvety smooth film on homosexuality, in which he posthumously pulls civil-rights activist and poet Langston Hughes out of the closet.

Black and gay, that was a step too far. Human rights discussions during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s concerned racism, and did not also include homosexuality. This Harlem Renaissance celebrated African-American culture, but anti-racist poets such as Langston Hughes were unable to come out of the closet.

This was astounding to British artist Isaac Julien, who devoted a film to this theme in 1989: Looking for Langston. Within this film, his camera descends into a world of dancing without daylight, but with beautiful dark men in evening clothes, sipping on champagne. Blues and Jazz resound, invitations for ‘Negro Art’ appear on screen. The camera swivels from close-up to close-up, to nude men in bed, stroking chests, legs and bottoms. Words by Hughes resound, who is pulled out of the closet posthumously, while he translates the homosexual taboo to a film filled with unspoken desire.

Covered in sensuality, the film is a pleasure to watch. Julien combines archival material of New York traffic with his own scenes that contain the same graininess, all of it velvety smooth. The then young Julien created a film classic that became curriculum material in academic circles. In the meantime, the film is clearly visual art: everything concerns texture, touch, skin and the ‘gaze’, the homo-erotic glance. Cigarette smoke from the dancing mixes with the fumes of the metro and the incense of a church where a wake takes place, inspired by the death of Julien’s friend. When he made the film, the homo-scene was struck by aids, and Julien was constantly at funerals.

Archival material, photo’s, film and some less convincing newer work is seen at Ron Mandos. A book by Langston Hughes lies in the vitrine: ‘Let America be America again’. But what kind of America? Since Trump’s election, criticism ensued that minorities and the LGBTQ movement chased the great white masses to Trump with their identity politics. The subtext was to be a little quieter. But silence hurts, the film makes that very clear. That can’t be the answer. Although it does deliver beautiful art.

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ABOUT Isaac Julien

Sir Isaac Julien, CBE RA is a critically acclaimed British artist and filmmaker. In 2018, Julien joined the faculty at the University of California Santa Cruz where he is a distinguished professor of the arts and leads the Isaac Julien Lab together with Arts Professor Mark Nash. Current and recent international solo exhibitions include: Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi — A Marvellous Entanglement, CentroCentro (Panorama Madrid), Madrid, Spain, on view until 29 August 2021; Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour, McAvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (2020–2021); Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi — A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome (2020–2021); Isaac Julien: Western Union: Small Boats, Neuberger Museum, New York (2020); Isaac Julien: Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2019); Looking for Langston at Tate Britain (2019); and Playtime at LACMA (2019). Julien has previously exhibited at venues including Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013), Art Institute of Chicago (2013), Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012), and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2005). Julien is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017 and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017.

Isaac Julien was born in 1960, London, UK
He lives and works in London, UK and Santa Cruz, CA