Exhibition Guide

Isaac Julien What Freedom Is To Me

Find out more about our exhibition at Tate Britain

Isaac Julien (born, London, 1960) constantly pushes the boundaries of filmmaking as an art form. His works tell important stories, prioritising aesthetics, poetry, movement and music as modes of communication. Social justice has been a consistent focus of his films, which explore the medium’s potential to collapse and expand traditional conceptions of history, space and time.

Over the past 40 years, Julien has critically interrogated the beauty, pain and contradictions of the world, while inviting new ways of seeing. This exhibition is the largest display of Julien’s work to date, reflecting how his radical approach has developed from the 1980s to the present day. You will encounter films he made as part of Sankofa Film and Video Collective (1982–1992), as well as large-scale, multi-screen installations. Julien says, ‘This gradual increase in scale – from one screen to two, to three, to five, and so on – has always been in service to ideas and theories: film as sculpture, film and architecture, the dissonance between images, movement, and the mobile spectator.’

What Freedom Is To Me presents a selection of Julien’s expansive career. Places, events, and historical moments recur throughout Julien’s films: from Notting Hill Carnival, to 1920s Harlem and abolition movements.

You are invited to choose your own route through the exhibition as a ‘mobile spectator’, encountering works at your own pace, in an order of your choosing. Moving through the multi-screen installations, you will experience different perspectives, and make connections of your own with Julien’s films.

'Whenever I make a work, I’m making an interventioninto the museum and the gallery, an intervention with the moving image. Radically and aesthetically, I want to aim for an experience that can offer a novel way to see moving images, in its choice of subject, in how its displayed, in how it’s been shot … in every aspect. Since I entered the art world, that’s what it’s been all about'

Isaac Julien

‘I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.'

Nina Simone


In Once Again… (Statues Never Die), Julien returns to the Harlem Renaissance. The film centres on a conversation between Alain Locke (1885–1954), the philosopher, educator, and cultural theorist of the Harlem Renaissance, and Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951), an early US collector and exhibitor of African material culture. Scenes, footage, and lines reappear from Looking for Langston (also in the exhibition), as Julien explores Black queer desire through the relationship of Locke and artist Richmond Barthé (1901–1989). These references suggest that Once Again… (Statues Never Die) could be a conclusion to Looking for Langston – or even a new beginning – as time in and between Julien’s films blurs and interconnects.

With this work, Julien also returns to the museum as a site of interrogation and dreams, imagining the installation as a form of ‘poetic restitution’. With the inclusion of sculptures by Barthé and Matthew Angelo Harrison, the installation alludes to contemporary restitution debates, examining the collection, display and significance of African visual culture in western art museums. It was filmed at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, where Locke was the first Black Rhodes scholar. It reflects on Locke’s ‘lifelong mission to reorient the aesthetic compass of the African diaspora in the direction of its rightful artistic heritage.

Julien’s footage is interwoven with extracts from You Hide Me, directed by the Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo in 1970. This recently rediscovered film, which was shot in the stores of the British Museum, argues for the repatriation of Benin Bronzes. Julien also includes excerpts of Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), the 1953 film directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. French authorities banned its screening soon after its debut for its anti-colonial sentiment. All of these works raise questions still relevant today about the collection, display and interpretation of ‘African art’ in European museums.


Western Union: small boats and Ten Thousand Waves explore the movement of people across countries and continents. Reflecting on unfinished journeys, Julien connects stories across different times, places and experiences.

Julien made Western Union: small boats at a time when immigration policies were being discussed and debated in the UK and mainland Europe. Focusing on the dangerous and often life-threatening journeys of people across the Mediterranean to southern Europe, Julien traces how borders are used to control the movement of people. The film explores the impacts of these journeys on the lives of people who make them and on those who must stay behind. He also considers how these experiences leave traces in buildings, monuments and architecture. Dance plays a central role in the film, which was made in collaboration with choreographer Russell Maliphant. Images, dance and sound open up poetic spaces for reflection. Julien invites us to consider the many different journeys – some about to happen, some unfinished and some ending suddenly – that take place across water.

‘In Western Union: small boats I’m showing human qualities, individual elements that get lost in all the official rhetoric. To try to really illuminate these, I turned to dance. In terms of bodies and movement, dance provides a different way in which I can look at things. Dance brings the story to what Derek Jarman used to call ‘political lyricism’.

Isaac Julien


‘Ten Thousand Waves and Western Union: small boats are kind of sister projects because they’re both about people searching for the so-called ‘better life’, which, of course, is why my parents came to England from the Caribbean in the first place. Artists and filmmakers have always been involved in trespassing and translating cultures … and I utilise fantasy to make political statements.’

Isaac Julien

Ten Thousand Waves was made in response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004. In February that year, 23 people from China drowned while working as cockle pickers off the coast of north-west England. The film weaves contemporary Chinese culture with ancient myths, including the story of the goddess Mazu which stems from the Fujian Province, where they originated. Ten Thousand Waves reflects Julien’s commitment to telling stories that illuminate the human cost of capital, labour and extraction, exploring the movement of people across countries and continents.


‘The most interesting question for me proved to be: what did Black artists actually want to say? What would their art look like if its internal dialogues were made accessible to a wider audience? Looking for Langston came out of such a conversation, one connected to Black gay desire and to photography. But it was really born of thinking about the textuality that belongs to the innermost life of one’s consciousness.’

Isaac Julien

Looking for Langston is a lyrical exploration of the inner world of the poet, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes (1902–1967), a foundational figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Julien filmed Looking for Langston in London but set it in the jazz world of 1920s Harlem. Bringing together poetry, image and sound, Julien explores Black, queer desire while breaking down traditional divisions between art forms.

Using beauty and poetry to ask important questions, Looking for Langston was made at the height of the HIV epidemic. It is a powerful celebration of Black queer love and a rejection of homophobic rhetoric. Julien directed the film while he was a member of Sankofa Film and Video Collective, with his partner, the film critic and curator Mark Nash. Its exploration of the complexity of the queer gaze led to the film gaining cult status, becoming a hallmark of what is now described as ‘New Queer Cinema’.

‘The central question in Looking for Langston was how to portray desire, more specifically Black gay desire. To talk about that, I knew that right away one had to use fantasy. It’s always been my observation that questions around desire tend to be located less in the real than in fantasy.’

Isaac Julien


essons of the Hour is a poetic journey into the life and times of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), a visionary abolitionist, freedom fighter, activist and writer. Julien brings us on a journey into Douglass’s era, reflecting on its relationship to, and relevance with, the present. It focuses on 1845–1847, a period in which Douglass travelled to Scotland, Ireland and England to campaign against slavery. Filmed in Edinburgh, London and Washington DC, the film includes excerpts of his most powerful speeches such as ‘Lessons of the Hour’, ‘What to the Slave is the 4th of July?’ and ‘Lecture on Pictures’. Here, Douglass sets out his belief that photography – which had just been invented – has the power to influence human relations and connections. He goes on to suggest that photography might support people to shape their identity after gaining freedom from enslavement. The installation mirrors a 19th-century salonhang – large groupings of artworks hung together. Natural landscapes appear throughout the film. They shift between places of beauty, and sites of violence and trauma that hold histories of enslavement. It also focuses on the domestic life of Douglass and his wife Anna Murray Douglass, who was also an abolitionist. The multiple screens work as portals for travelling in and out of history, representing Julien’s ongoing interest in using the archive to reflect on contemporary life.

‘The film tries to build into the pictures this sense of rupture and sublimity, and at the same time to use them to look back into a history and a slavery that we’ve been resisting in the west in the 21st century, but which nonetheless haunts the spectre of all our actions in everything that we do.’

Isaac Julien


Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement signals Julien’s commitment to dance and choreography. It honours the work and legacy of modernist architect and designer Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992). Celebrated for her buildings in Brazil, Bo Bardi devoted her career to promoting the social and cultural potential of art, architecture and design. Like many of Julien’s films, sound plays a central role in the work, taking us through the film as the narrative unfolds. It was filmed across seven public buildings Bo Bardi designed: four in Salvador, in Brazil’s north-east region of Bahia, and three in São Paulo. Each becomes a site for a performance, intervention, enactment or reinvention of scenes that have shaped the history of, and the legends around, Bo Bardi’s architecture.

Julien presents a complex layering of sounds and images. This includes footage of Bo Bardi’s buildings, and staged performances of music, voice and movement. It also features readings by Brazilian actors Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres, who portray the architect at different moments of her life. Performances by the dance company Balé Folclórico da Bahia also feature, filmed at the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia.

Motivated by the belief that Bo Bardi’s work and legacy has yet to be fully acknowledged, Julien emphasises her social, political and cultural views, alongside philosophical reflections from her articles and letters. ‘Linear time’, she wrote, ‘is a western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end.


Vagabondia was filmed in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. The film focuses on the dreams and fantasies of a conservator walking the halls of the museum at night. She is transported to a dreaming state, imagining hidden histories behind the collection of paintings, sculptures and architectural relics. In this fantasy, the objects appear to fold in on themselves as time and space are collapsed.

A museum functions as a place that contains and defines history and culture. Objects represent histories that are circulated over time and across space, presenting a particular narrative of culture. Histories are left out and stories often distorted, depending on what objects are collected and by whom. In Julien’s hands, the museum’s permanence becomes unstuck: he sets history in motion as he blurs, and often breaks, the boundaries of time and space. Julien invites us to question ‘who sees what and what it is we’re actually seeing’. He often returns to museums as a subject in his work, exploring their sometimes violent histories and considering what a museum should be today: how might they collect, show and share objects, and how might we want to encounter them.

‘I used Creole to vocalise the conservator’s thoughts, and the narration is spoken by my mother, Rosemary Julien … I was trying to explore a version of the repressed histories. My whole series of works about the museum is concerned with unexpected elements of the institution.’

Isaac Julien

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