One of the most compelling works at the recent Summer/Winter Exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts was Isaac Julien’s photographic collage suite, Who Killed Colin Roach?. It brings together rediscovered images from his first film, produced when he was an art student and reflecting on the death of a Black man who was shot at the entrance of a police station in east London in 1982. Presented in a year when outrage at continued racial injustices reached a tipping point following the murder of George Floyd, Julien’s project took on new urgency. ‘It certainly resonated differently in the public, as Black Lives Matter became more prominent and people engaged more in debates about racial inequality and police brutality,’ the artist tells us.

Also taking on new meanings in light of the events of 2020, Julien’s Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass is a ten-screen video installation from 2019 that reflects on the life and times of the African American abolitionist and writer. It is now being presented at San Francisco’s McEvoy Foundation of the Arts. Beyond retelling the history of abolitionism and the suffrage movement, the installation also depicts Douglass in the studio of the African American photographer James Presley Ball. The most photographed man of the 19th century, Douglass understood the power of images to shape social narratives. He saw photography as a vehicle for empowerment, allowing African Americans and other traditionally underrepresented communities to take control of their own image. This conviction is echoed in Julien’s oeuvre, which includes films and installations that bring to life Black cultural icons, from the poet Langston Hughes to the philosopher Frantz Fanon. Julien is now preparing to show Lessons of the Hour in the UK this year and producing a large book dedicated to the piece and Douglass. It’s ‘a prospect which excites me a great deal’, he says.

Installation view, Lessons of the Hour, McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco by Isaac Julien
Installation view, Lessons of the Hour, McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco (October 14, 2020 – March 13, 2021). Courtesy of McEvoy Arts and Isaac Julien. Photography: Henrik Kam

Aside from his artistic endeavours, Julien has also turned his attention to education. He spent most of the past year in California, where he runs the Isaac Julien Lab at UC Santa Cruz alongside his partner, curator Mark Nash. The lab offers a graduate programme specialising in moving image and curation, including semesters in London and collaborations with practitioners, artists and academics from different countries and disciplines. It’s another meaningful way in which Julien has been exercising his role as a cultural trailblazer.

We invited Julien to join our judging panel for the Wallpaper* Design Awards out of admiration for his art, and the ways in which he has shown the importance of representation, but also because of his abiding love of architecture and design. ‘My artist studio in London was designed by David Adjaye and my apartment was designed by a Black conceptual designer called Layton Reid,’ he explains. ‘An early work that I made in 1999, and which is in the Tate collection, was about Sir John Soane’s Museum.’ And then there’s his seminal nine-channel installation Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvelous Entanglement, which was inspired by his experiences of showing at the Italian-Brazilian architect’s SESC Pompéia arts centre in São Paulo. Previewed in the pages of our magazine (see W*243) prior to its 2019 debut at Victoria Miro gallery, the work is now on view in Bo Bardi’s hometown of Rome, at the national museum of 21st century arts (MAXXI).

 Installation views of A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome by Isaac Julien
 Installation views of A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome by Isaac Julien
Above and below: Installation views of A Marvellous Entanglement, MAXXI, Rome (September 23, 2020 - January 21, 2021). Courtesy of MAXXI and Isaac Julien. Photography: Musacchio, Ianniello and Pasqualini

Julien has a nuanced approach to evaluating design. ‘I would say that there isn’t one single set of criteria,’ he says, accepting that different designers have different ambitions and agendas. ‘For the work of a certain designer, it may be about the balance between functionality and concept; for others, about responding to social and cultural issues; or maybe it is about posing a question – technical, environmental, theoretical, poetic – which the designed object embodies. And of course, sometimes all those angles come into play at the same time.’

So while he values design that responds to and inspires conversations around current issues, he also believes that ‘engaging with contemporary history or not does not determine the intrinsic value of a piece of design’. And when we ask him for words of advice for designers in times of flux and uncertainty, his reply is memorably succinct: ‘to be true to their vocation even under duress’. §