Tate Etc


We talk to the artist about his multidisciplinary work, which explores the history of diaspora and imagines new possibilities for the future


In Praise of Still Boys 2021

Courtesy the artist © Studioknxx

SAFI BUGEL Where did the idea for your film In Praise of Still Boys 2021 come from?

JULIANKNXX It came from a series of poems I wrote in 2019, exploring my personal history as a Creole living in England, and the ways in which stories of people like me have overlapped across the globe. When shooting the film, I had the opportunity to go back to Sierra Leone, where I was born. There I encountered a group of boys who reminded me of my younger self. I remember thinking: how do I tell the story through their eyes? It was a profound encounter, to see myself in them, but also to feel very much outside of that place, having left the country when I was nine. While I was making the film, I was thinking about Blackness and aliveness, about the ocean and the history that it holds.

SB Why do you favour a nonlinear approach to narrative over more conventional storytelling?

JK In Lorna McDaniel’s book The Big Drum Ritual of Carriacou (1998) she says that artists can reinvent history. History is often told from the top down – it negates everyday people. As an artist, I want to tell stories from the ground up. These often counter what we’ve been told about ourselves. I came to the idea of using multiple screens as a way of thinking about time, layering the elders’ ideas with my own. It’s a bit like painting – adding layer upon layer.

SB What stories or ideas have inspired you recently?

JK In my most recent film, Chorus in Rememory of Flight 2023, currently on show at the Barbican, there’s a line in which someone suggests that if you don’t go on the path to unlearn racism, you might miss the love of your life. That just blew my mind. Things like that excite me, they have a profound effect on me.

SB Dance and music play a big role in your work – why are you interested in these art forms?

JK Dance is what we use when words fail us. How can the body say what we’re trying to say? I love that it can map a story, hold space or translate emotion. We’ve also been using music as a therapeutic practice for millennia; it’s a big part of my upbringing, singing together, using the chorus to come together and just release.

SB How does it feel for your film to be the closing work in the A World in Common exhibition at Tate Modern?

JK I’m proud to walk into Tate and hear my voice, because I usually go there and keep quiet! It’s affirming: to be part of a canon of African artists is something that I would never have dreamt about. And it makes me wonder, what other possibilities are out there? In my new work I’m thinking about how to use the motif of water in a more active way – to map a route across the world and reflect on what the future could hold.

In Praise of Still Boys is included in A World in Common: Contemporary African Photography at Tate Modern, which continues until 14 January 2024.

Julianknxx is a poet, visual artist and filmmaker based in London. He talked to Safi Bugel, Editorial Assistant, Tate Etc.

Curated by Osei Bonsu, Curator, International Art, with Jess Baxter and Genevieve Barton, Assistant Curators, International Art and Katy Wan, former Assistant Curator, International Art. Supported by the A World in Common Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate Americas Foundation, Tate International Council, Tate Patrons and Tate Members.