How Filmmaker Isaac Julien Brought to Life the Late Alain Locke, First Black Curator of Albert Barnes Collection – artnet News | Candle Made Easy

Isaac Julien has always worked with the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. So it makes sense that his most recent commission for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia can be traced back to writer, philosopher and “father” of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke.

Locke and Albert Barnes had a history. The collector was one of the first in the United States to collect and exhibit African art, and amassed a collection that Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Fellow, oversaw for a time. But their relationship soured: they had conflicting interpretations of African art, and Barnes accused Locke of stealing his ideas.

One more time… (Statues never die) (2022), Julien’s five-channel film about Locke, is installed among items from Barnes’ collection of African sculptures. The work takes many positions, using texts by Bell Hooks alongside actor-performed writings by Barnes and Locke.

Julien also features a black curator walking through the collection today and an imaginary interaction between Locke and artist Richmond Barthé. Shot against the backdrop of the collection, this beautiful film takes us on a journey as nuanced and varied as the debates it touches on.

On the occasion of the exhibition, we spoke to Julien about the work, its connection to old and new debates, and the artist’s thoughts on restitution.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die), (2022) The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image courtesy of Isaac Julien and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Henrik Kam.

You’ve worked with the Harlem Renaissance for a long time. What about it speaks to you?

Well, you could say this work is almost like a prequel too Looking for Langston (1989), which of course was a film that dealt very heavily with the Harlem Renaissance. I look back to that time – the late 80’s – because that’s when I first met artists like Glenn Ligon and curators like Thelma Golden, art critics like Kenny Jones and Dawoud Bey the photographer. A real synergy took place.

Paul Gilroy had just written The Black Atlantic or was about to finish it, but I was able to read some of its early chapters, which was pretty much an introduction to my conceptual thinking about black art movements. When I was in art school, I wasn’t taught about Black Modernism in its American variants, with movements like the Harlem Renaissance. These had been absences from my art history class at St. Martin’s School of Art. But also the question of topics related to sexuality and desire, which were also very central in the Harlem Renaissance.

Looking for Langston was also made during the AIDS crisis. So that’s kind of an echo in terms of making One more time… (Statues never die) (2022) during the COVID crisis, in the midst of another pandemic and pondering mortality issues.

Do you think these ideas have become part of a broader thinking?

These debates are considered new today, but they are actually not new. They were only articulated separately by different generations.

That’s one of the reasons why in One more time… (Statues never die) There’s this scenario where we have young African artists or students studying African sculpture. This is from a movie that was made in 1970 called you hide me by Nii Kwate Owoo. It was created 50 years ago and revolves around the issues of restitution that we are discussing today.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die), (2022) The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image courtesy of Isaac Julien and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Henrik Kam.

What made you decide to make a film specifically about Alain Locke?

When I got the job, I thought the thing about Barnes is that he’s omnipresent. There’s a way his fixed gaze works, or the way he wants to control how people look, is something Locke wanted to undo. I saw Locke’s point of view as important, and it would also tie into Locke’s earlier explorations Looking for Langston. I think the work uses the brief in a way to think about Locke as someone to turn to.

In addition, I wouldn’t look at the collection from Barnes’ point of view, but rather from Locke’s point of view. But then, of course, as I was developing the work, I realized that both of these perspectives came from the West in a way, and that’s where I started to develop the Black Curator’s voice in the piece, because I felt like we need someone who had a completely different relationship to these objects.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die), (2022) The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image courtesy of Isaac Julien and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Henrik Kam.

Why do you think engagement with the Harlem Renaissance and the Black intellectuals of the time is so popular these days?

People have called it a paradise of decolonial thinking, and I’m not quite sure what that means. So I’m a bit reluctant to use it for my own work. But I think maybe that’s because I was involved [that] Debate. For example, I made a film about Frantz Fanon Black skin, white masks In the mid 90’s with my partner Mark Nash. It is a debate between the postcolonial and the decolonial that I do not consider closed. I think I can see across generations how you would want them to mark a specific moment. But it feels like we’re still caught in the clutches of the unfinished business of those moments and conversations that represent some sort of reckoning. We have seen various forms of existential crises and political upheavals, cultural debates and controversies, all of which can shift around these various issues of nationalism, race and culture. It’s a contentious time.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die), (2022) The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image courtesy of Isaac Julien and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Henrik Kam.

How do you feel when you look at Barnes’ collection of African art?

I see many things. I think it’s an amazing collection, an amazing collection. Obviously I can see the kind of kleptomania that Barnes was involved in. I think Barnes wanted to make a statement at the end. He was of working-class origin, an outsider in white middle-class society in Philadelphia, and left majority control of the foundation’s board to a black college, Lincoln University. All of these things have now manifested as something very controversial over time.

It’s great to have some of the African works on display in the actual gallery and to have that kind of seance between the objects and sculptures. There is a kind of dialectic going on and I think it would be interesting to one day have the possibility to move the works and change the exhibition. I think the creators at the Barnes Museum should be free to interpret this collection.

Isaac Julien: One more time… (Statues never die), (2022) The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image courtesy of Isaac Julien and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Photo by Henrik Kam.

What do you think of active collections of historical African art and artifacts today?

These debates have been around for a long time. Only the difference in the contexts is new. They are beginning to return items stolen under conditions of violence, and I think that’s a good thing. Eventually this has to happen.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:


Want to stay one step ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest news, insightful interviews and incisive critical statements that drive the conversation.

Leave a Comment