Filmmaker Isaac Julien. Photography by Thierry Bal
Art and artistsCultureLocal

East End filmmaker Isaac Julien named Art Icon 2024 by Whitechapel Gallery 

Born and raised in Bow, the acclaimed filmmaker Isaac Julien known for Looking for Langston (1989) was recently named Whitechapel Gallery’s 2024 Art Icon. 

Countless artists have their roots in the East End, from fashion visionary Alexander McQueen to the original grime rappers of the early 2000s, but up there with them is Bow-born filmmaker Isaac Julien.

Throughout his life, Julien has garnered a reputation for his impressionistic multi-screen video installations, exploring themes such as race, sexuality and migration with a sensuous poeticism. His work challenges the barriers between different artistic forms, combining film, dance, photography, theatre, painting and sculpture in mesmerising spectacles. 

The artist was born in 1960 and grew up with four siblings on a council estate in Bow. Julien’s parents migrated from St Lucia to London, where his father worked as a welder, and his mother as an NHS carer. After attending local schools, Julien’s mother put him through the prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art where he studied painting and fine-art film, kick-starting his creative journey. 

Before he burst onto the global art scene, Julien soaked up the atmosphere of creative enterprise in the East End. As a young man, he was involved with Four Corners Films in Bethnal Green, and the Newsreel Collective, a not-for-profit group of London-based filmmakers committed to examining the struggles of working-class communities in the 1970s.

In 1983, he founded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective alongside Martina Attille,Maureen Blackwood, Nadine Marsh-Edwards and other London artists ‘dedicated to developing an independent black film culture in the areas of production, exhibition and audience’. 

With Sankofa, Julien directed his first film, Who Killed Colin Roach? – an exploration into the killing of a 21-year-old black man who died in suspicious circumstances after entering a Hackney police station, triggering anti-racism protests in the UK.

After graduating from St Martin’s in 1985, Julien quickly made a name for himself with his drama-documentary Looking for Langston (1989) – his poetic exploration of black male desire set in 1920s Harlem. Offering an impressionistic memoriam to Langston Hughes – a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance – the film focuses on the novelist’s identity as a black gay man in a society of homophobic oppression.

The radical and tender film firmly put Julien on the map as an unflinching artist willing to push political and aesthetic boundaries, earning him a cult following. 

His subsequent film, Young Soul Rebels (1991) won the Semaine de la Critique prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival. The feature offered a daring tribute to racial and class solidarity in the hostile environment of 1970s London, cementing Julien’s position at the forefront of British filmmaking.

While much of Julien’s work engages with his identity as a black gay man, the filmmaker is not preoccupied with dissecting his sense of self. Instead, the singularity of the artist is often eclipsed by his multi-layered, polyvocal installations, steeped in history and contemporary geopolitics.

Whether he’s meditating on the legacy of American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Lessons of the Hour (2019), or exploring the perilous journeys of Libyan migrants across the Mediterranean in Western Union: Small Boats (2007), Julien blends lyrical beauty with resolute political critique, delivering cinema both luscious and violent.

Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001 and was awarded a CBE in 2017 in recognition of his significant services to the arts. He divides his time between London, where he has a studio in Hackney, and Santa Cruz, California, living and working alongside his partner Mark Nash.

Julien is represented by the Victoria Miro Gallery in Islington, and his work is frequently exhibited across London. If you’re keen to experience his cinema in person, the Royal Academy is showcasing Julien’s Lessons of the Hour until April alongside over 100 major artworks in its exhibition Entangled Pasts, 1768-now, exploring the relationship between art, empire, and the legacies of transatlantic slavery.

In January, Whitechapel Gallery awarded Julien with its annual Art Icon award, to be presented to him at the Art Icon Gala on Monday 18 March. Following the announcement, Whitechapel Gallery Director Gilane Tawadros said:

‘It’s an honour to announce Isaac Julien as our 2024 Art Icon. His ground-breaking, visually compelling film and video works, alongside his elaborate multi-screen installations, have defined new and important territories for artists and filmmakers, and changed the way that audiences view and experience moving image work – both within and outside art spaces.

‘His work offers a uniquely seductive yet critical lens to explore and interrogate historical and contemporary experiences and he is rightfully acknowledged to be one of the most influential artists of his generation.’ 

Soul, R&B and jazz singer Mica Paris, who performed the title track of Julien’s Young Soul Rebels, will perform at the Gala event, hosted in honour of Julien’s unique contributions to filmmaking.  

There will also be an online auction of contemporary artworks hosted by Phillips Auction House. The money raised will go towards Whitechapel’s Education and Public Programmes, aiming to increase access to arts and creativity for young people. 

Isaac Julien
Pas de Deux with Roses (Looking for
Langston Vintage Series)
1989/2016
Isaac Julien, Pas de Deux with Roses (Looking for Langston Vintage Series), 1989/2016 © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Isaac Julien
Freedom / Diasporic Dream
-
Space No. 1
(Once Again...Statues Never Die)
2022
Inkjet print on Canson Platine Fibre Rag
Framed: 273 x 183 x 5.6 cm
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Isaac Julien
Installation view,
Once Again... (Statues
Never Die)
, Tate Britain
2023
© Isaac Julien
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro
Photo: Jack Hems
Isaac Julien, Installation view, Once Again… (Statues Never Die), Tate Britain 2023 © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro. Photo: Jack Hems

Isaac Julien
Iolaus / In the Life (Once Again...
Statues Never Die)
2022
Isaac Julien, Iolaus / In the Life (Once Again… Statues Never Die), 2022 © Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

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