Isaac Julien made his entrance into the art world in the late 1980s with his seminal film ‘Looking for Langston’, a contemplative celebration of black queerness. He was later awarded the Semaine de la Critique prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 for ‘Young Soul Rebels’, which highlighted unacknowledged racist and homophobic attitudes prevalent in London against a backdrop of seventies disco and radio culture. Julien’s contextual depth and aesthetic vision can be seen again in his latest exhibition that refers to his earlier film, ‘ “I dream a world” Looking for Langston’ at Victoria Miro Gallery.
Julien’s visually arresting installation is luminous and large-scale, a combination of text, documentation and photography. Most notable are the sizeable prints of well-dressed, handsome characters from his film. However, to stop at that would mean to miss the self-determinism of his subject and process.
The film is set in the 1920s Harlem, a pivotal period also known as the Harlem Renaissance. The two protagonists are key literary figures Langston Hughes and his lover, played by Ben Ellison and Matthew Baidoo.
In ‘Pas de Deux with Roses’, two men are engaged in a waltz before a backdrop of roses and white tablecloths. Most of the subjects in this carefree, opulent world are black, upholding an image of socioeconomic high standing typically denied black society in a time of racism and prejudice.
In ‘Masquerade No. 4’, Ellison walks in a surrealistic scene of windblown wheat towards a nude man. While these images are film stills, they also take on the character of dreams, a blurring of reality and fantasy that appears in other instances, such as the fictional documentation of Langston Hughes’ funeral, which is the premise of Julien’s film. On display in glass boxes are handwritten letters, Polaroids and film storyboards by John Hewitt relating to the film. Archival material further adds to the impression that the narrative Julien has created is real.
This blur between documentary and fiction has been previously employed by others, and continues to be used today. In Cheryl Dunye’s influential film ‘Watermelon Woman’ (1996), the narrator fabricates a documentary about a fictional black film star while simultaneously discussing her own identity as black and queer. Recently, Martine Syms took on this filmic legacy in her 2015 work, ‘A Pilot For a Show About Nowhere’, a pilot for a fictional television series based in Los Angeles. This particular practice of creating fictional realities and archives has been used as a tool for self-construction, the rewriting of history and the reclamation of identity by creating an alternative archive when one does not exist.
Two poems by Hughes are placed as wall text, one of many elements of written language in the exhibition. One of them, titled ‘Stars’ (1921), encapsulates the feeling of agency, empowerment and beauty that Julien must have been inspired by:
“Reach up your hand, dark boy, and take a star. / Out of the little breath of oblivion/ That is night, / Take just /One star.”