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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Isaac Julien. What Freedom is to me – K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen | 23.09.2023 – 14.01.2024

Editors’ Choice

The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is showing the first survey exhibition of the British artist Isaac Julien (*1960 in London, lives and works in London and Santa Cruz/California) in Germany in its House of Contemporary Art K21. It is a groundbreaking body of work that pushes the boundaries of film and art with expansive cinematographic installations.

Fig. above: 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 (107 1/2 x 72 x 2 1/4 in) © Isaac Julien, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Julien’s cinematic imagination, critical thinking and activist engagement with decolonial aesthetics are expressed in his early films of the 1980s as well as in the extraordinary film images of his major, internationally acclaimed film installations of the last 20 years. Radically political and highly aesthetic at the same time, the works take up overlooked archive material and bring forgotten themes to the fore. Using poetry, dance, aesthetics, architecture and music, Julien explores the possibilities of film as a medium, breaking through traditional notions of linear history, space and time. The focus of his groundbreaking work is the demand for equality. His work is as experimental and politically charged today as it was forty years ago. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear”, the quote by the US jazz singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone inspired Isaac Julien to give his exhibition a subtitle.

The exhibition begins with Julien’s early experiments with moving images, created in the context of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. This group of London art students from the African, Asian and Caribbean diasporas, which Julien founded together with Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Robert Crusz and Nadine Marsh-Edwards in the summer of 1983, played an essential role in establishing independent Black cinema in the UK. Four works from this period are on show at K21, including Julien’s first film Who Killed Colin Roach? (1983), made in response to the riots following the death of a young man at the entrance to a London police station; Territories (1984), which focuses on the experiences of Black British women in the early 1980s; and This Is Not an AIDS Advertisement (1987), an important work of LGBTQIA+ history that still resonates strongly today. The film Looking for Langston (1989), in which the artist uses poetry and images to explore the private world of Black women artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, is also an important contribution to the exploration of Black queer desire.

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 (107 1/2 x 72 x 2 1/4 in) © Isaac Julien, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Julien uses dance, theatre and poetry to articulate the movement of people across different continents, times and spaces. This is reflected in the three 3-channel film installations Western Union: Small Boats (2007), Ten Thousand Waves (2010) and Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019). In Western Union, a series of danced vignettes, choreographed by the internationally acclaimed Russell Maliphant, creates a poetic reflection on African migration stories and the impact of trauma on people, buildings and monuments. The internationally acclaimed multi-channel installation Ten Thousand Waves evokes ancient Chinese myths and the glamorous tradition of the early 20th century film city of Shanghai to commemorate the Chinese migrant workers who died in a tragic accident off the English coast in Morecambe Bay in 2004. A Marvellous Entanglement explores the legacy of visionary modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi in Brazil. It features a stunning performance by the Balé Folclórico da Bahia, filmed at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia in Brazil, and a tour of Lina Bo Bardi’s museum buildings and public buildings in Sao Paulo and Salvador.

For the first time in Europe, the exhibition will feature the artist’s latest work, the 5-channel cinematographic installation Once Again…(Statues Never Die) (2022). It explores the relationship between the US collector Albert C. Barnes and the famous philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, known as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance”. The storied relationship between the two men insists on a critical dialogue that shaped both sides and had a significant impact on their work as educators and activists for various causes in the African American community. Also featured in the exhibition is Julien’s critically acclaimed 10-channel film installation Lessons of the Hour (2019). This portrait of the life and work of former slave and self-liberated freedom fighter Frederick Douglass can be seen as an exemplary expression of Julien’s 40-year commitment to cultural activism, the politics and poetics of the image. Douglass’ writings on photography and his use of photography (he is considered the most photographed personality in the USA in the 19th century) articulate the moral and social influence of image-making that Julien himself pursues with his work.

The exhibition was created in cooperation with Tate Britain, London, where it was on view from 26.04. until 20.08.2023. Following the stop at the K21, the exhibition will travel to the to the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht and will be shown there from 08.03. – 18.08. 2024.

Curator: Isabella Maidment (formerly of Tate Britain). Nathan Ladd (Tate Britain). Curator of the exhibition in K21: Doris Krystof. Organisation of the exhibition in exchange with Isaac Julien Studio London (Juanita Boxill, James Keith, Vladimir Seput, Paul Smith). Exhibition design: Adjaye Associates.

The exhibition “Isaac Julien. What Freedom Is To Me” at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is supported by the Ford Foundation; got2b; The Arts Division, The University of California, Santa Cruz and proAV. With the generous support of Victoria Miro.


Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen – K21 Ständehaus
Ständehausstraße 1
40217 Düsseldorf


Opening: Friday, 22 September, 7 pm
Exhibition duration: Saturday, 23 September 2023 – Sunday, 14 January 2024, Tuesday – Sunday, public holiday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., closed Monday

Every 1st Wednesday of the month, K20 and K21 are open until 10pm for the KPMG Art Evening.

COST? Combiticket K20 and K21: 20 euros, Kombiticket K20 and K21: 9 euros, reduced 7 Admission free from 6 pm.

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