Julien came to prominence in the film world with his 1989 drama-documentary Looking for Langston, gaining a cult following with this poetic exploration of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. During the past three decades he has made work largely, though not exclusively, for galleries and museums, using multi-screen installations to express fractured narratives exploring memory and desire. Julien’s major film installations include the seven-screen PLAYTIME (2014), which explores the dramatic and nuanced subject of financial capital. Starring an international roster of actors including Maggie Cheung, Mercedes Cabral and James Franco, PLAYTIME comprises three chapters set across three cities defined by their relationship to capital: London, a city transformed by the deregulation of banks; Reykjavik, where the 2008 crisis began; and Dubai, one of the Middle East's burgeoning financial markets. Part documentary and part fiction, the work interconnects major figures in the world of art and finance with the real stories of those deeply affected by the crisis and the global flow of capital.
Julien’s critically-acclaimed nine-screen film installation Ten Thousand Waves, 2010, explores China's ancient past and rapidly transforming present through a series of interlocking narratives. Starring, among others, Maggie Cheung, the legendary siren of Chinese cinema, and filmed on location in the ravishing and remote Guangxi province and at the famous Shanghai Film Studios and various sites around Shanghai, TEN THOUSAND WAVES combines fact, fiction and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend and landscape to create a meditation on global human migrations. Through formal experimentation and a series of unique collaborations, Julien seeks to engage with Chinese culture through contemporary events, ancient myths and artistic practice. The original inspiration for TEN THOUSAND WAVES was the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004, in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers died. In response to this event, Julien commissioned the poet Wang Ping to come to England and write Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the work. In the successive years, Julien has spent time in China slowly coming to understand the country and its people's perspectives and developing the relationships that have enabled him to undertake this rich and multifaceted work.
Earlier audio-visual installations range from Baltimore (2003), which, in part through the stylisations of black action movies from the 1970s, looks at the histories, divisions and intersections of black and white cultures, through to his trilogy comprising True North (2004), Fantôme Afrique (2005) and Western Union: Small Boats (2007), all of which deal with themes of voyaging and cultural displacement on both a local and global scale.
In 2015 Julien directed a series of readings and performances as a pivotal component of the exhibition 'All the World's Futures', curated by Okwui Enwezor as Artistic Director of the 56th Venice Biennale; the cornerstone of this programme was a continuous live reading of all three volumes of Karl Marx's Das Kapital throughout the exhibition's seven month duration. Other significant projects by the artist include the devising and curation of a very personal selection of work by the late artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman (2008); he has also worked in collaboration with choreographer Russell Maliphant to create the multimedia dance event Cast No Shadow (2007).
In 2019, the world premiere of Julien’s Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass took place at Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester. The work is a meditation on the life, words, and actions of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the visionary African American abolitionist and freed slave, and on the issues of social justice that shaped his life’s work.
The nine-screen installation Lina Bo Bardi - A Marvellous Entanglement premiered at Victoria Miro in 2019. Reflecting on the iconic work and on the legacy of the visionary modernist architect and designer (1914–1992), it traverses a collection of Lina Bo Bardi’s most iconic buildings, featuring artists and personal acquaintances of Bo Bardi’s, such as actor, director, playwright and co-founder of São Paulo’s Teatro Oficina, José Celso Martinez Corrêa (known as Zé Celso). Starring the acclaimed Brazilian actresses Fernanda Montenegro and her daughter Fernanda Torres, A Marvellous Entanglement portrays Bo Bardi at different stages of her life, as Montenegro and Torres recite texts closely adapted from the architect’s writings.
Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die), 2022, commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in celebration of its centennial, is an immersive five-screen installation exploring the relationship between Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who was an early US collector and exhibitor of African material culture, and the famed philosopher and cultural critic Alain Locke, known as the 'Father of the Harlem Renaissance.' Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die) looks at Dr. Barnes’s and Alain Locke’s storied relationship, its mutually formative critical dialogue, and its significant impact on their work as cultural critics, educators, organisers, and activists on behalf of various African American causes. The work premiered at the Barnes Foundation in 2022 (on view 19 June–4 September 2022).
Opening at Tate Britain in April 2023, Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me reveals the scope of Julien’s pioneering work in film and installation from the early 1980s through to the present day. This major exhibition is on view 26 April–20 August 2023.
About the artist
Born in 1960, Isaac Julien lives and works in London and Santa Cruz, California. He has been making films and producing film installations for over forty years, including Once Again… (Statues Never Die) (2022), Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement (2019), Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass (2019), Stones Against Diamonds (2015), PLAYTIME (2014), Ten Thousand Waves (2010), Western Union: Small Boats (2007), Fantôme Afrique (2005), True North (2004), Baltimore (2003), Paradise Omeros (2002), Vagabondia (2000), and Long Road to Mazatlan (1999).
Opening at Tate Britain in April 2023, Isaac Julien: What Freedom Is To Me reveals the scope of Julien’s pioneering work in film and installation from the early 1980s through to the present day. This major exhibition is on view 26 April–20 August 2023. Other current and recent international solo and group exhibitions include: Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME, PalaisPopulaire, Germany; Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, USA (2023); Isaac Julien: Once Again… (Statues Never Die), Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour - Frederick Douglas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, USA; Isaac Julien, Goslar Kaiserring, Mönchehaus Museum, Goslar, Germany; Details of Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 – 1971, Academy Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA; Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now, Tate Britain, London, UK (2022); Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, USA; Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour, McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (2021); Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi. A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome, Italy (2020) touring to Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte NC, USA; Galeria Helga de Alvear, Madrid, Spain; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia (2021-2022); Isaac Julien: Western Union: Small Boats, Neuberger Museum, New York; Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, Barbican Art Gallery, London, travelling to Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, among others (2020); Baltimore at the Baltimore Museum of Art (2019-2020); Isaac Julien: Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2019; Looking for Langston at Tate Britain (2019); Playtime at LACMA (2019); Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem at the Gibbes Museum (2019). Also in 2019, Julien's Playtime was featured as part of Ruby City's inaugural programme.
Previously, Julien has had solo exhibitions at venues including ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2018); The Whitworth, Manchester (2018); The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (2017); MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016), MUAC (Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo), Mexico City (2016); the De Pont Museum, Netherlands (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013), Art Institute of Chicago (2013), Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2012), Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo (2012), Bass Museum, Miami, Florida, USA (2010), Museum Brandhorst, Munich (2009), Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea - Museu do Chiado, Lisbon, Portugal (2008), Kestnergesellschaft Hanover (2006), Pompidou Centre Paris (2005), and MoCA Miami (2005).
In 2022 Julien received Knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for the Platinum Jubilee year.
Julien was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the Arts in the Queen’s Birthday 2017 Honours List, and is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017.
In 2019, Julien was appointed to the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Julien and independent curator and writer Mark Nash, the former head of contemporary art at the Royal College of Art in London, developed the Isaac Julien Lab at the UC Santa Cruz campus, which provides students with the opportunity to assist Julien and Nash with project research and the production of moving-image and photographic works in California and London.