Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me exhibition review


…As though to remind audiences of the extent to which Julien is an artist as much as he is a film-maker, the central space of the exhibition – from which a number of walkways lead to individual screening rooms – contains enlarged photographs relating to the exhibited films, including What Freedom is to Me (Homage) and The Lady of the Lake (Lessons of the Hour). Thus, the exhibition is a compelling mix of stills and projected works, the latter of which move from the single screen of Looking for Langston to Julien’s now commonplace use of multi-screen projection. This technique is an engaging one, as it brings the audience’s attention squarely back to the act of conscious looking. Not infrequently, the viewer encounters the same image, presented at varying angles that are often slightly out of sync with one other. The multi-screen is of course a well-established and effective means through which one can, quite literally, avail oneself of multiple readings of the same or similar – as well as deliberately contrasting – images. In Julien’s films it facilitates a particular awareness and appreciation of the artist’s use of layering. 

One might in some respects summarise Julien’s films as compelling diasporic narratives, the multiplicity of which is reinscribed by visualisations of Blackness, race, gender, violence, culture, history and identity. However, as broad and layered as Julien’s diasporic excavations might be, such works as Ten Thousand Waves centre on additional narratives. In this instance, the film takes as its sobering starting point the horrific deaths in February 2004 of twenty-three undocumented Chinese immigrants, who were drowned by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, a large estuary in northwest England, while harvesting cockles. The exhibition text describes the film as weaving ‘contemporary Chinese culture with ancient myths, including the story of the goddess Mazu which stems from the Fujian Province’ – a south-eastern Chinese province, which the ill-fated cockle pickers hailed from. The text continues by suggesting that the film ‘reflects Julien’s commitment to telling stories that illuminate the human cost of capital, labour and extraction, exploring the movement of people across countries and continents’.

Although Julien is a prolific artist, What Freedom is to Me is a poignant reminder of the relative infrequency with which his work is brought to wider attention. One might see Julien’s films occasionally – most recently, this reviewer was privileged to see Once Again… (Statues Never Die) at the 15th Sharjah Biennial – but more substantial showings of his practice are rare. Each of the seven works included here has a different focus. Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement for example, pays homage to the Italian-born Brazilian modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi, focusing on the power of visionary architecture and what it can do in terms of its pronounced cultural resonances. Drawing particular attention to the power of dance and choreography and associated Afrocentric cultural practices in Brazil, the three-screen installation presents dramatic multidimensional views of a number of Bo Bardi’s iconic buildings in São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia – the latter being a particularly vibrant centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. Dance and choreography emerge throughout the exhibition as art forms beloved by Julien, also evident in various scenes in Looking for Langston and the choreography that characterises Vagabondia, which was filmed in the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London….

The above extracts are from “Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me”, exhibition review, Burlington Contemporary, published online 5 July 2023,