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 KBE RA (GB, 1960), a London-born filmmaker and installation artist, is celebrated for his groundbreaking approach to art, seamlessly merging film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture to craft compelling visual narratives through multi-screen film installations. Notably, his 1989 documentary-drama “Looking for Langston” and the Cannes Film Festival Semaine de la Critique prize-winning debut feature, “Young Soul Rebels” (1991), garnered critical acclaim on a global scale.

Julien’s international acclaim extends to prestigious solo exhibitions at prominent venues, including the Barnes Foundation, Smith College Museum of Art, and Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. His works have graced the walls of renowned institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In addition to his artistic pursuits, Julien has made significant contributions to academia, holding key positions at institutions like the University of Arts London and Staatliche Hoscschule fur Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. His educational efforts were further recognized when he was awarded the James Robert Brudner ’83 Memorial Prize and delivered lectures at Yale University in 2016.

Isaac Julien’s dedication to the arts has earned him distinguished accolades, including The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award in 2017 and a knighthood as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Honours List in 2022. Furthermore, he was honored with the esteemed Kaiserring Goslar Award in 2022.

In April 2023, Tate Britain hosted a comprehensive survey show, presenting Isaac Julien’s illustrious career. This exhibition featured works spanning four decades, encompassing early films and expansive multi-screen installations that delve into the themes of global movement and history. It marked the first-ever presentation of Isaac Julien’s extensive body of work in the United Kingdom. Following its showcase at Tate Britain, the exhibition traveled to K21 in Düsseldorf, with its next destination set to be Bonnefanten in Maastricht, where it will be open for viewing from March 9 onwards.

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