“These images encapsulate this diasporic dream- space; they are about the imaginative possibilities.” – Isaac Julien

 

This new photographic series is inspired by Isaac Julien’s extensive research into the work and critical writing of Alain Locke (1885–1954), leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and his relationship to Albert C. Barnes, the philanthropist, pioneering art collector and founder of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

Text by Vladimir Seput, Studio Isaac Julien

Sonata (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag | Framed: 228 x 153 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 225 x 150 cm

Isaac Julien

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Sonata in Red (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultrasmooth | Framed: 228 x 153 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 225 x 150 cm

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The exhibition comprises photographic artworks (all dated 2022) which honour Locke’s contribution to the arts while also inviting critical conversations around the African material culture that influenced the Black cultural movement. The writings of Alain Locke and Albert C. Barnes on the meaning and value of African material culture were reproduced in Harlem Renaissance periodicals of the 1920s including Opportunity, Survey Graphic, and The Crisis.

The motif of weather and the elements of snow and winter permeate this series of photographs. They reference Christina Sharpe’s concept of weather as “the totality of our environments”* and bell hooks’ text Winter**, in which she writes, “we emerge out of the snowy mist, shadowy figures moving into clear light; in clear light… we see one another. One mystery is solved: we are the shadowy figures… looking for the door to transgressive culture that will let us in.”

* The Weather, Christina Sharpe, The New Inquiry, 19 January 2017
** bell hooks, Winter, published in Isaac Julien: Riot, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2013

‘Isaac’s work has been and continues to be an engagement with the power of becoming free – of walking away from received imposed thoughts and images and walking toward ideas, thoughts, and images emerging from a commitment to an artistic aesthetic that requires utter devotion to seeing beauty as the essence of making any art. It is his profound belief that engaging beauty and cultivating our capacity to experience the beautiful is a necessary act of political resistance,’ writes bell hooks in Winter. After her death in December 2021, Julien went back to hooks’ text written for his autobiography Riot and excerpted parts of it for his immersive five-screen moving-image installation Once Again… (Statues Never Die) and dedicated this work to bell.

In Julien’s work, the totality of the artistic environment includes his photographic artworks as well as his moving-image installations, and in the case of Once Again… (Statues Never Die) those atmospheres are created between the political reality of racism and class discrimination, and the use of ‘critical fabulation,’ a speculative storytelling inhabiting what hooks describes as “the mystical diasporic dream-space.

The portraits of André Holland as Alain Locke and Alex Part as his alter ego in Diasporic Dream-Space No. 1 and Diasporic Dream-Space No. 2 create a stunning visual diptych of two figures suspended in time under the falling snow, and this changing weather is where “a culture of infinite possibility is ready to receive us. This is artistic freedom as pure and unsullied as falling snow – as snow so deep it remains undisturbed – a whiteout.” These images encapsulate this diasporic dream-space; they are about the imaginative possibilities.

These and other photographic artworks contain visual references to Julien’s seminal film Looking for Langston, 1989, whose pioneering theme of the queer subculture of 1920s Harlem is further explored in Once Again… (Statues Never Die) through its reflection on the relationship between Alain Locke and the sculptor Richmond Barthé. For this, Barthé’s sculptures were staged at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).

In his research for Looking for Langston, Julien came across an archival image of Richmond Barthé and Alain Locke in an art gallery. Richmond Barthé (1901–1989) was a well-known African American sculptor who established his first studio in Harlem in 1930 and had a successful career throughout his lifetime. In his Black Madonna / New Negro Aesthetic, Julien pays homage to Barthé (Devon Terrell performs the role) and his 1961 bronze Black Madonna. Duality of existence – of being simultaneously in life and in a dream – is a theme of Night Rain , which takes us back to the weather, to the environment that Langston Hughes inhabited. His poem Harlem (also known as A Dream Deferred) was first published in 1951 in Hughes’ book Montage of a Dream Deferred.

Statues Never Die (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag | Framed: 153 x 203 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 150 x 200 cm

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Three photographic artworks, Black Apollo, Black Apollo diptych, and Statues Never Die, are references to Black Athena histories, the African presence in ancient civilisations, and to Albert Barnes’ interest in art collecting. These images interweave Grecian and Roman idioms with classical Nubian sculpture. They speak of the importance of the spaces between when portraying objects and people in still life and sculpture, which is emphasised in the work Black Apollo. The figure is becoming a statue, becoming an object – also becoming a classical mythological hero. The works are a testimony to the plurality of media in the history of Black art and in Julien’s work, in painting and sculpture, film and photography.

A series of photographic still life works is dedicated to the archival periodicals of the 1920s. The visual motif of the photograph Harlem on My Mind is the special edition of Survey Graphic magazine entitled Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro. Published in March 1925, the periodical’s first article Enter the New Negro, written by Locke introduces the theme of the ‘Old’ versus the ‘New Negro’, a motif that Locke explores in his celebrated anthology The New Negro, the definitive text of the Harlem Renaissance which was published that same year. The cover featured the renowned tenor and composer Roland Hayes (1887–1977) in a portrait by Winold Reiss (1886–1953) who also created a portrait of Locke in the same year.

Harlem on My Mind (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultrasmooth | Framed: 53 x 78 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 50 x 75 cm

Isaac Julien

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The Conversation (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultrasmooth | Framed: 53 x 78 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 50 x 75 cm

Isaac Julien

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In The Conversation, standing between a copy of Harlem, Mecca… and of Opportunity on an antique table in the middle of a room, is a typewriter with a green lamp illuminating the sheet of paper tucked into it, which shows the beginning of a conversation, a dialogue, or perhaps a love letter. It is a poetic visual reference to the correspondence between Locke and Barnes; to all the Black literary figures of the 1920s who started writing the first pages of their prominent books under just such a yellow glow; but also to intimate and often secret desire; to letters never sent and passions never fulfilled.

The yellow, brown and green palette of Julien’s artwork What Remains awakens in us a lyrical memory of the past and anticipation of what is yet to come. The work is inspired by Langston Hughes’ Poème d’Automne.* There is music and rhythm in What Remains, an elegiac melody as the wind and the leaves are stopped in motion. But a different melody is behind Sonata in Red, a song of a late hour in 1920s Harlem, while André Holland as Alain Locke lays his shadow on the wall behind him as he descends the stairs to meet his lover in the notes of the night, a direct homage to Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston in which he returns to the site of that film.

* Langston Hughes, Harlem; Poème d’Automne published in “The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics)” by Vintage Books, 1995

What Remains (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultrasmooth | Framed: 53 x 78 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 50 x 75 cm

Isaac Julien

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Le Musée Imaginaire / Redux (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag | Framed: 153 x 203 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 150 x 200 cm.

Isaac Julien

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Orisa's Return (Once Again... Statues Never Die), 2022 | Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag | Framed: 153 x 203 x 5,6 cm. Unframed: 150 x 200 cm

Isaac Julien

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Orisa’s Return is inspired by the writings of the novelist, playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Orisa is an African spirit who has a key role in the Yoruba religion, while Ogun represents the warrior deity of the same religion. In his book Beyond Aesthetics, Soyinka looks at the politics and aesthetics of collecting African art. The figure in Orisa’s Return symbolises a curator, a keeper, someone with a relationship to the spiritual objects. Both works are also about the alienation effect and the clinical gaze, as all of the objects that have been taken are labelled and either displayed in glass vitrines or kept in storage. “Ogun is my muse, my protective deity. On the one hand he is a lyricist, the deity of poetry. At the same time he’s a smith, so he’s the protective deity of blacksmiths, goldsmiths […] a lover of solitude, yet he is constantly combative in society,” writes Wole Soyinka, “I’m still very much into the Yoruba Orisha religion. I consider deities to be expansions of the human imagination. And I do consider myself a spiritual person. Within the various spiritualities that I have encountered, Orisha obviously appeals to my sensibilities.“*

* “Wole Soyinka on Yoruba antiquities,” Wole Soyinka, Financial Times, 15 October 2020.

Once again, I defend my open heart, no question. My old ways, bad old days pass me by like the weather,” the celebrated American vocalist Alice Smith sings in the musical score written and composed for Julien’s multi-screen moving-image installation Once Again… (Statues Never Die). Smith is the central motif of the photographic artwork Once Again. Time is seen here as repetition; as a revisit, a return. In the photograph, the camera holds a moment of calm triumph, of introspection and memory, as Alice Smith embodies the beautiful as a necessary act of political resistance and lets all worldly things go.

About the artist

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.

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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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