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Incorporating themes of sexuality and race, Isaac Julien's work expands conventional cinematic strategies of narrative and beauty to explore and subvert stereotypical portrayals of gay and black subjects. Curator Okwui Enwezor has described Julien's work as having "jouissance, ambivalence, communal pleasure, and self-reflexivity, as well as stunning cinematic beauty. Julien has attempted, through a career of considered and critical advocacy, a kind of cinema that surpasses the pretentious, boring fare of Hollywood."
Since founding the Sankofa Film and Video Collective in England in 1984, Julien has made over 20 films and installations, including Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995); the Cannes Film Festival prizewinner, and the critically acclaimed documentary on Langston Hughes, Looking for Langston (1989). His multi-channel video installations include The Long Road to Mazatlan (1999), created in collaboration with Venezuelan choreographer Javier De Frutos, exploring the mythic codes of male sexuality in the West, and Vagabondia (2000), in which a conservator imagines ghosts of 18th-century Black London including a dancing vagabond figure (also choreographed by De Frutos).
Julien's work has been shown at the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and at the MIT List Visual Art Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has won many prestigious awards including the Art Pace International Award, The Eugene McDermott Award for Visual Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation Award; in 2001, he was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. A solo exhibition of his work traveled to the United States, Australia, Sweden and Finland. He was commissioned by the Bohen Foundation for Documenta11. In 2002 he received Frameline's Lifetime Achievement Award. His recent film, a documentary about blaxploitation film, Badasssss Cinema, was broadcast by the Independent Film Channel in 2002.
Julien is currently teaching film theory as a Visiting Professor in the African-American Studies program at Harvard University and is a visiting lecturer with the Whitney Museum of American Arts Independent Study Program, as well as serving as a research fellow of fine arts with Oxford Brookes University. Julien was recently appointed as a Research Fellow at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He lives and works in London, where he is a Trustee of the Serpentine Gallery.