Histories of African migration explored by renowned contemporary artist Isaac Julien

The Block Museum of Art presents Isaac Julien’s The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) through April 14

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University is pleased to announce its presentation of artist Isaac Julien’s groundbreaking 2007 video installation The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) running January 26 through April 14, 2019. The renowned work presents a lyrical and visceral meditation on histories of African migration.  Combining exquisite cinematography with elements of documentary, dance and musical performance, The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) juxtaposes all-too-familiar images of Mediterranean passage—bodies crowded in rafts, laid out in reflective blankets on Italian shores, drowning in tempestuous waters—with the tranquil spaces of European tourism and luxury.

“The Block is thrilled to present Isaac Julien’s landmark The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats), a work whose mesmerizing and unsettling vision of northward migration could not be more resonant today” notes Michael Metzger, the Block Museum Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Art.  “As immigrants and refugees around the world are scapegoated, demonized, and imprisoned, Julien’s video installation offers a powerfully empathetic perspective on the hopes and fears of those who bravely seek better lives on distant shores.”

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Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 5 (Ghosts/They Build New Lives in Foreign Lands), 2007, Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © Isaac Julien

Aesthetics, Politics, and History

Born in London in 1960 to Caribbean immigrant parents, Isaac Julien has crafted a singular and expansive body of work that moves effortlessly between experimental film and narrative cinema, theatrical exhibition and video installation. With characteristic formal beauty and critical depth, The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) synthesizes Julien’s longstanding examination of Black diasporic and postcolonial experience in a moving and humanistic 20-minute work. The video work is part of an ongoing exploration of sea passage and transnational crossings the artist calls the Expedition series.

Western Union: Small Boats advances [Julien’s] already refined fusion of politics, history, and stunningly lush aesthetics,” wrote critic David Frankel for Artforum  “Julien is utterly sensual in his approach to imagemaking; his films take physical pleasure in both the human body and its natural and created environment. At the same time, this Londoner of Caribbean descent has both shaped and been shaped by the postcolonial thought of recent decades–the exploration of culture and identity, migration and diaspora.”

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Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 12 (Balustrade), 2007, Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © Isaac Julien

Considering Migration’s Long History

Presented in conjunction with The Block’s exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa , The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) challenges viewers to contemplate the inequities of globalization and the cycles of displacement and violence that have bound Europe and Africa for centuries. Speaking with BOMB Magazine in 2007 Julien described the work as “thinking about the Mediterranean as a space that is between east and west, north and south, Europe and Africa. It’s a contact-zone that has a number of different markings, a number of traumas, that are very much still present in the actual location today.”

“In both form and content, The Leopard fulfills the Block’s mission of presenting art that bridges boundaries of time, place, culture and media, and of connecting art with broader issues that affect our contemporary reality,” states Lisa Corrin, The Block Museum of Art Ellen Philips Katz Director

Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 8 (Sculpture for the New Millennium), 2007, Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © Isaac Julien

Related Programs

A companion program on Thursday February 28, Nations of Migrants, will examine urgent issues of migration in our current moment and their connections to the US, Chicago, and Evanston, Illinois. Drawing on the perspectives and first-hand experiences of economic migrants, international policy experts, and humanitarian organizations, the panel conversation will consider issues such as the ethics of witnessing, self-reliance and resilience, and responsibility in a time of refugee crisis. Co-presented by The Block Museum, the Program of African Studies, and Refugee Knowledge Hub, the discussion will interrogate the legal, social, political, and human implications of our histories as nations of migrants.

A related film series Personal Passages: African Filmmakers in Europe responds to The Leopard (Western Union Small Boats) through a series of films which illuminate 20th and 21st-century migrant experiences across the Mediterranean. While dozens of films have been made by European filmmakers addressing the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants to Europe, the films in this series, made by Tunisian, Mauritanian and Malian emigré filmmakers, all provide more intimate perspectives on these experiences of displacement and diaspora. Films include:

  • An Opera of the World (2017) with world-renowned scholar, filmmaker, and theorist of cultural hybridity, Manthia Diawara (Wednesday, February 6, 7PM)
  • Soleil Ô (1970) which confronts the racism of French society through the eyes of a Mauritanian immigrant worker in Paris (Thursday, February 7, 7PM)
  • Brûle la Mer (Burn the Sea) (2014), on the dreams and fears of the Tunisian migrant community in France. (Thursday, March 14, 7PM)

The Block Museum will also host a special screening of Isaac Julien’s riotous debut feature film Young Soul Rebels (1991) a vibrant and intersectional portrait of late-70s British musical subculture. (Friday, March 15, 7PM) Young Soul Rebels daringly tackles issues of race, class, sexuality, and violence during a period of social upheaval in the UK.  An essential entry in the “New Queer Cinema” of the early 1990s, the film remains one of Julien’s most accessible and personal films.

All exhibitions and events at The Block Museum of Art are free and open to all.

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