Monday, May 22nd, 2023

Queerguru’s Ris Fatah reviews renowned filmmaker ISAAC JULIEN’S major retrospective WHAT FREEDOM MEANS TO ME @ London’s Tate Gallery

Renowned filmmaker Isaac Julien’s biggest show to date, What Freedom Means To Me, is currently on at London’s Tate Britain. Julien’s films tell important stories – queer stories, black stories, and social justice stories. Julien, himself a gay black man, has a 40-year story-telling history, including Derek, his 2008 film narrated by Tilda Swinton, about fellow queer film-maker Derek Jarman. 

Julien’s work combines beautiful people and aesthetics, graceful movement, smart outfits, poetry, and captivating soundtracks to retell or reimagine, historical, often difficult, events. He aims to break down the barriers between different artistic disciplines and combines archive and new film, dance, photography, music, theatre, spoken word, painting, and sculpture in his powerful narratives. He works closely with his long-term partner, the film critic and curator, Mark Nash. They divide their time between London and Santa Cruz, California.

This exhibition showcases several films from Julien’s repertoire, from the 1980s to the present day. Each film has its own room. Some of them are shown on multiple screens. The total viewing time is over three hours – an intense, mind-blowing three hours that will transport you into altered states of consciousness – so give yourself enough time to view the films properly. The films are free-flowing so you don’t need to view each one from the beginning. Also, you are allowed to re-enter the exhibition on the same day, so taking a break halfway through could be a good idea. The following three films were highlights for me.

Looking for Langston is a 1989 film set in a lavish, queer jazz world in 1920s Harlem. Julien combines poetry, a great soundtrack and immaculately dressed, handsome queer black male couples dancing together in a jazz club. This is a homage to the mind of the poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes. A fantasy exploration of queer black desire. It is a particularly beautiful film, a queer cult classic. If only it had been reality. 



Once Again… (Statues Never Die) is a 2022 film and shows as you enter the exhibition. Julien revisits the Harlem 1920’s Renaissance. The philosopher Alan Locke is in conversation with Albert Barnes, a collector and exhibitor of African material culture. Julien explores the queer relationship between Locke and artist Richmond Barthe. As well as a rich, attractive homoerotic feast for the eyes, this film is also a commentary on the collection, display and interpretation of African art in European museums and the debate around restitution. This stunning film cleverly uses footage from Looking for Langston as well as extracts from two other films by other filmmakers, You Hide Me by Nii Kwate Owoo and Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.

Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement. Bo Bardi was a fabulous Italian-born Brazilian modernist architect and designer. A larger-than-life female diva most queers would love to hang out with. She placed a big emphasis on the social and cultural use of her public buildings. Julien emphasizes this using vocal and dance performances shot in several of her beautiful buildings in Brazil as she discusses her philosophy.

The other main films, Western Union: Small Boats, Ten Thousand Waves, Lessons of the Hour and Vagabondia are also epic. Each film has a different energy, although the wealth and depth of the content is a constant. Head on down there.

Isaac Julien’s show coincides with the relaunch of Tate Britain’s Queer and Now Festival on 10th June. An interesting day of queer art tours, performances, talks, making workshops, family events, DJs, films and readings from artists rooted in the UK’s queer communities and histories. More details are here. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/queer-and-now-2023

What Freedom Means to Me is on at Tate Britain, Millbank, London until 20th August.



Queerguru’s Contributing Editor Ris Fatah is a successful fashion/luxury business consultant  (when he can be bothered) who divides and wastes his time between London and Ibiza. He is a lover of all things queer, feminist, and human rights in general. @ris.fatah

Posted by queerguru  at  12:14

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