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Isaac Julien (UK)


The investigation of critical geographies and human migration is a recurring theme within the work of Isaac Julien. In WESTERN UNION: small boats, he meditates on refugees’ voyages made across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Europe. This story of “clandestines” who leave North Africa to escape wars and famine is part of a continuum of works exploring individual journeys, excursions, and expeditions.

Questioning the movement of bodies and the circulation of human lives across both physical borders and states of being, Julien employs sophisticated cinematic language to emphasize the personal stories of his subjects and introduce subjectivity into the often impersonal contemporary dialogues on migration. The three-screen installation moves the viewer through different settings: the uncanny landscape of Scala dei Turchi (Turkish Steps), a colossal chalk formation in southern Sicily; the opulent Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi in Palermo; and the glistening waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Broken and abandoned boats, retrieved from the sea and shown languishing in a junkyard, are evidence of perilous trips undertaken in search of better lives.

WESTERN UNION: small boats is an inquiry and meditation made in an age of daily, heightened controversy regarding immigration policies, asylum, race, cultural identity, relationships between nations, and questions of the legality or illegality of those who cross state-enforced borders.

Steven Evans, FotoFest Executive Director and 2016 Biennial Co-curator


Isaac Julien is an artist who was nominated for the 2001 TurnerPrize and a filmmaker.

His early works include Young Soul Rebels (1991), which was selected for the Semaine de la Critique competition, a parallel program at the Cannes Film Festival; the acclaimed poetic documentary Looking for Langston (1989); and Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996). He has since pioneered a form of multi-screen installation art with works such as Western Union:Small Boats (2007), Ten Thousand Waves (2010), and Playtime: Kapital (2014).

Julien was a participant in the 56th Biennale di Venezia, curated by Okwui Enwezor. He is currently producing a new filmic installation on the life and work of modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi,entitled The Seven Faces of Lina Bo Bardi. The first chapter of this work, Stones Against Diamonds, was shown during the 2015 Biennale di Venezia, and at Art Basel, Switzerland, and Art Basel Miami Beach. Julien is at present serving as chair of global art at University of Arts London.

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