It took the loss of the photo negatives from his seminal work on black sexuality and desire, 'Looking for Langston', to get installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien thinking about preserving his work for a younger audience and the need to explore its relevance today.
By
Robert Burton-Bradley

23 Feb 2018 - 9:48 AM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2018 - 10:03 AM

'What relevance does a lush monochrome art film about black gay artists in 1920s New York have today?' you might ask. Surprisingly, more than you’d think in the age of Moonlight, Trump, #Metoo, and the fight for marriage equality.

"What does black/gay desire look like? What does interracial desire look like? What is [the] intersection between black, gay, and white cultures at this particular moment,?" I'm asked by filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien not long after I start our interview about his latest work, Film-Noir Angels’ Looking for Langston.

Julien is currently in Australia as part of the Mardi Gras Festival with a collection of images taken from his landmark film, Looking for Langston. The new multimedia exhibit, which also includes rarely seen behind the scenes production images, is on display until March. 

“When I first made the work, [it] was shown mainly in cinema, independent cinemas and film festivals, so, I think moving on maybe 30 years later, this is really about trying to reintroduce the work to a young audience,” he says on a humid February afternoon in the empty expanse of the Roslyn Oxley Gallery just hours before his Australian exhibition opened.

The original film was shot in 1989 and focused on the life of poet Langston Hughes and a loose collection of other black artists and intellectuals who were part of the Harlem Renaissance scene of 1920s New York. 

The influences Julien cites show the intersectionality of race, sexuality, and sexual identity contained within his work.

“George Platt Lynes to [Robert] Mapplethorpe to [James] Van Der Zee, to Film Noir. You know, hence the title, Film Noir Angels. And I like the idea of Film Noir Angels, this double-entendre, between the idea of black angels and Film Noir as a kind of motif for the whole black and white character, the visual characteristic of the film and the photographs. And, of course, there are angels of desire, which are kind of in the works,” explains Julien.

“These are artists that were really involved in the foreground in questions of gay desire in photography and making that become a part of a kind of lingua franca of art-making. And so, I think, in my work, there's this connection or trajectory. But I think also, it was really important at the time that I made it [1989] to think about poets of, say, Langston Hughes' generation and the poets that I came across like Essex Hemphill and think about that kind of Paris is Burning moment of house and voguing and there was a kind of really high proliferation of articulation of black queer culture that went into popular culture. Because think about Madonna's Vogue, we can think about the way in which it was really being strongly articulated in musical idioms. And so, I think it, yeah, it came to the surface [in the late 80s] and it was very energetic and I very much saw myself as really being part of that avant-garde and really tried to express that.”

Julien possesses that rare ability to talk about his work without being self-obsessed, maintaining his focus always on the work, rather than the creator. Gracious and enthusiastic, Julien makes for an easy interview; as we talk about the Sydney heat, he kindly asks one his minders to fetch me a glass of water after noticing I'm still sweating from the walk to the gallery.

His technical knowledge of the mediums of film and photography are also impressive. After the loss of the original still photo negatives from Langston, he resolved to undertake an assiduous restoration process that has resulted in the material for the current exhibit in Sydney for the Mardi Gras Festival.

“I would say that behind this raison d'être was also the kind of archival impulse, which got created over the loss of negatives, the original negatives of the photographic works, which must have occurred, now, seven years ago.”

“It's a really complicated process of basically taking very high-resolution images from master prints and then, basically, re-engineering them into negatives, which can happen through utilisation,” Julien explains with an enthusiasm that belies the several painstaking years it took to recreate the works. 

“And then, getting actual scans of negatives, and then, basically, facing those two [pieces of] information to the top of one another, and then have a very skilled retoucher that basically cleans up all of the information from both sources of materials, and then, is able to carefully, in a way, is able to recreate the image of the work without it becoming solarised or breaking up.”

Julien recalls that when Langston was made there was a lot of debate and upheaval socially in the UK and abroad and race and gay sexuality, but now, 30 years on, there seems to be a similar moment occurring with gay marriage becoming legalised and the ongoing fight to reduce racial and sexual inequality gaining increasing prominence.

“There's a film that I saw last year called Moonlight,” he says of the film about abuse, forbidden love, and gay desire set amongst the poor neighbourhoods of Miami.

“Funnily enough, I was working on this project before I knew about the release of Moonlight. And also, there's another wonderful film called I'm Not Your Negro by James Baldwin. I guess what I'm saying is that there's a whole kind of impetus, if you like, in Trump's America where basically these questions [of sexuality, race, abuse, wealth] have come to the forefront again and have come to forefront both in American culture for different reasons, in Australian culture for different reasons, and British culture for the historical reasons. So, there's something that's hovering around here, I think, for a young generation, a new generation to look back on.”

Isaac Julien: ‘Film-Noir Angels’ Looking for Langston, will be on display at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, as part of the official program for Sydney’s 40th Mardi Gras Festival.