East End filmmaker Isaac Julien named Art Icon 2024 by Whitechapel Gallery 

Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

Born and raised in Bow, the acclaimed filmmaker Isaac Julien known for Looking for Langston (1989) was recently named Whitechapel Gallery’s 2024 Art Icon.

Countless artists have their roots in the East End, from fashion visionary Alexander McQueen to the original grime rappers of the early 2000s, but up there with them is Bow-born filmmaker Isaac Julien.

Throughout his life, Julien has garnered a reputation for his impressionistic multi-screen video installations, exploring themes such as race, sexuality and migration with a sensuous poeticism. His work challenges the barriers between different artistic forms, combining film, dance, photography, theatre, painting and sculpture in mesmerising spectacles.

The artist was born in 1960 and grew up with four siblings on a council estate in Bow. Julien’s parents migrated from St Lucia to London, where his father worked as a welder, and his mother as an NHS carer. After attending local schools, Julien’s mother put him through the prestigious Saint Martin’s School of Art where he studied painting and fine-art film, kick-starting his creative journey.

Before he burst onto the global art scene, Julien soaked up the atmosphere of creative enterprise in the East End. As a young man, he was involved with Four Corners Films in Bethnal Green, and the Newsreel Collective, a not-for-profit group of London-based filmmakers committed to examining the struggles of working-class communities in the 1970s.

In 1983, he founded the Sankofa Film and Video Collective alongside Martina Attille,Maureen Blackwood, Nadine Marsh-Edwards and other London artists ‘dedicated to developing an independent black film culture in the areas of production, exhibition and audience’.

Gilane Tawadros, Isaac Julien & Zeinab Badawi, Art Icon Gala 2024, 18 March 2024, Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Hannah Burton

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