Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien, 2001 recipient of the renowned Turner Prize, began working with video installations in 1996. Prior to that, after graduating from the Central St. Martins School of Art in 1984, he was part of a group of young film-makers producing their films in the Sankofa Film and Video Collective. His video installations reveal his background in painting: by creating visual references to historical paintings, museums and historical sites, and by staging visualisations as tableaux vivants, Julien creates new forms of cinematic expression. His images appear to be virtually without movement, while in his inconclusive narrative form he finds new interpretations of identity politics and postcolonial history(ies).

The three-channel video installation The True North is based on the writings of the Maryland-born polar explorer Matthew Henson (1866–1955). As the first African American explorer, he was a member of Robert Peary’s legendary 1909 expedition to the North Pole. Julien gives Henson his rightful place in the accounts of the polar expeditions: in characteristic style, his The True North evocatively shows in a seamless merging of fact and fiction how history branches out in multiple directions. For example, he uses a gender shift – the actress and dancer Vanessa Myrie plays the role of Matthew Henson – to give the story an additional nuance. The spectacular locations in the endless frozen expanses of northern Sweden and Iceland themselves become key actors in the story: these white, snowy landscapes set the stage for the human search for new conquests, a place in which we must battle with nature and with our own limitations. The True North is a visual drama told in meditative and reflective images. “It is certainly no coincidence that the playful aspect, the exuberance and the moments of surprise in Julien’s video installations, with their echoes of the early silent films, go hand in hand with a conceptual use of the kaleidoscope effect. Both of these forms of dealing with diversity prove to be not only an effective means of visual expression, but also carry a considerable metaphoric and historical significance.”1

Anke Hervol


1 Ernest Larsen, “Queering Bachtin: Über die Filminstallationen von Isaac Julien”, Texte zur Kunst 43 (2001), pp. 7686, here p. 86.


In the exhibition:

Isaac Julien
The True North, 2004
Triple screen projection, 16mm film, black and white/colour, DVD transfer with sound
4:3, 14:20 min
Julia Stoschek Collection


Additional information about the artist