Isaac Julien: The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats)

Isaac Julien: The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats)

A solo exhibition by Isaac Julien is on show at the Northwestern University Block Museum until 14 April. The exhibition showcases Julien’s technically and thematically influential 2007 video work The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats). Two works from the Western Union project are available as digital editions on Sedition.

Originally made in 2007 as a multi-screen installation, The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) explores themes whose relevance has not diminished in the decade since. The work combines multi-layered narratives and multiple disciplines - dance, documentary, music, cinematography, performance - to explore histories of African migration. The work is a major landmark in a long-established thread of Julien’s practice: his reflection on, and amplification of, Black diasporic postcolonial experiences.

Julien’s cinematic training gives the work formal beauty and complexity, while his skill as a researcher and storyteller provide a warmth and relatability. As with many of Julien’s works, The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) breaks down barriers between disciplines and links the voices of peoples with vastly different histories as they live together in the same spaces. Water and boats appear throughout the work; the flows of displaced peoples arriving into cities on fragile vessels is contrasted with the entrenched opulence in those cities.

“'I come from cinema; it's cinema I'm quoting from and cinema I reappropriate. As much as I work to disentangle myself from genre, cinema remains my home and my reference. So Western Union: small boats takes place in Italy, and makes allusions to the afterlife of Italian film. Sicilian histories have been mythologized on screen for decades; I wanted to try to have a conversation with that. So a lot of the work is set in the Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, a key location for Luchino Visconti's film The Leopard (1963). Visconti was an aristocrat who was won over to Marxism- through film, after he met and worked with Jean Renoir- and The Leopard is an extraordinary film. It deals with the psyche of a Sicilian prince whose condition of privilege is ending as Italy starts to unify. Visconti set a very complex ballroom scene in the Palazzo Gangi, a total tour de force of visual composition. But the whole film shows power meditating on its domain, looking at the landscape and trying to come to terms with different bodies suddenly occupying it, doing different things. I used the same spaces in Western Union, but I was talking about another population' [of African migrants to Italy, including Sicily and Lampedusa- both locations used in the film].” - Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 5 (Ghosts/They Build New Lives in Foreign Lands), 2007, Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York © Isaac Julien

The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) is on show alongside another exhibition at NU Block Museum. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time looks at the power of West African cities such as Gao and Taadmeka in medieval times, when West African gold was a major force in shaping world affairs and international trade. The exhibition features over 250 artworks spanning five centuries, loaned from institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria. The two exhibitions, shown together, invite visitors to reflect on the cycles of wealth, violence, appropriation, displacement, exploitation and culture which have connected Africa with Europe for over a millennium.


The Leopard (Western Union: Small Boats) is at Northwestern University Block Museum, 40 Arts Cir Dr, Evanston, IL 60208, USA until 14 April.

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