Isaac Julien, Vagabondia, 2000. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Isaac Julien, Vagabondia, 2000. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Isaac Julien, Vagabondia, 2000. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.
Isaac Julien, Vagabondia, 2000. Copyright and courtesy of the artist.

Sir Isaac Julien

Vagabondia

One of today’s most prominent and influential figures in media art and film, Isaac Julien is an award winning British installation artist, filmmaker and Distinguished Professor of the Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His multi-channel installations, documentaries, and photographs explore Black and queer histories and identities. Julien gained international attention for his iconic film Looking for Langston (1989), a montage that reimagines the life of poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. Julien’s works emerge from in-depth investigations of history, blurring the barriers between film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting, and sculpture.

Julien’s Vagabondia (2000), commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella, where I worked from 1994-2005, is a two channel installation exploring how structures of power and domination impact historical narratives in museums. Set in London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum, which the architect designed in the early nineteenth century to house his collection of art and artefacts, the video shows a Black female conservator as she moves around the museum at night imagining the ghosts of eighteenth-century Black London. Julien’s video evokes a world of mirrors and shadows and features a dancing “vagabond” figure who animates a room designed to display William Hogarth’s 1732–34 morality tale A Rake’s Progress. For Julien, the vagabond highlights the ways the museum’s collection has benefitted from colonial exploitation. Julien employs a Creole voiceover to tell the story, representing the complex identities comprising this history.

Vagabondia was commissioned for the exhibition Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Cerith Wyn Evans at London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum. Made in collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos, Vagabondia was later presented in an exhibition entitled Cinerama, alongside another major work by the duo, the three-screen installation, The Long Road to Mazatlan nominated for the Turner Prize in 2000. 

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Isaac Julien CBE RA (b. 1960, London) has been honoured with solo shows at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York (2021); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2019); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2013); Art Institute of Chicago (2013); Museum Brandhorst, Munich (2009); and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2000); among many others. His work is represented in prestigious collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern; UK Government Art Collection; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Museum Brandhorst, Munich; Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; and de la Cruz Collection, Miami.

Vagabondia received commissioning/production support from Film and Video Umbrella as part of the project Cinerama, initiated in partnership with Cornerhouse, with funding from the National Touring Programme of Arts Council England. Additional support was provided by the British Council and Dance Umbrella. With thanks to London Film and Video Development Agency, Victoria Miro Gallery and Rosa de la Cruz. The Long Road To Mazatlan was commissioned by Artpace, Texas and Grand Arts, Kansas City, with additional support from London Arts Board and the Arts Council England.