“There’s a conversation that’s gone wrong, that hasn’t been listened to.”

Published 18 June 2020

In 1982 Isaac Julien RA documented the suspicious killing of a black man in a London police station with Who Killed Colin Roach? After the killing of George Floyd in the USA, he questions whether anything has changed.

  • In 2018, I was digging around in my archives one day when my archivist found some negatives and we both said, “what the hell are those?” I immediately had them printed and it turned out they were photographs from my project Who Killed Colin Roach?, and all my memories as an art student in 1982 flooded back.

    I was in my second year at St Martins School of Art and to supplement my income I’d go to jumble sales, sending people to the cleaners so to speak, and then sell the antiquaries on Kings Road and in World’s End. On one of my excursions I came across a lot of people — mainly black people — marching against the death of this young man named Colin Roach, who’d been found dead in Stoke Newington Police Station. Apparently he had shot himself.

  • I personally would prefer for monuments not to be manhandled, but criminalising the actions of the statue’s removal focuses attention away from why it happened in the first place.

  • Well, of course, quite a lot of the people marching and the family didn’t believe that version of events, and nor did I. Whenever I see the photographs I slightly gulp; I think “Oh my god, it could be my mother,” because they were all ordinary, working class black people. There was no political agenda; they were just trying to find out what had happened to their son. I was so moved by this demonstration that I decided it would be important to document it, and at least try to make a work which could be used by his family. That was my main intention, anyway.

    That we’re living in the 21st century and still have these questions of paramount importance just shows you that these things have not improved at all. Thinking about George Floyd, there is a sense that things have gone backwards.

    One of my works which resonates with the current debates around abolitionism, and our relationship to histories of slavery, is Lessons of the Hour, a film portrait of the 19th-century abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. He had been a slave, had taught himself to read and was an incredible orator – he was the Martin Luther King of his time. He wanted to use photography as a way of having autonomy over the way African Americans were being caricatured, both in drawing and more generally in art at a time when there was no possibility for humane representation. He ended up being the most photographed man of the 19th century — more photographed even than Abraham Lincoln. He also did over 400 lectures in the UK, in England and in Scotland, and we reconstructed some of these lectures in a 10-screen work, which premiered at the University of Rochester Memorial Art Gallery in 2019. Those lecture scenes were, by the way, shot at the Royal Academy. Positioning one of the utmost voices of historical reform into one of the most traditional cultural institutions in Britain is a deliberate act of provocation to our critical thinking.

  • Isaac Julien RA, Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 - Who Killed Colin Roach?

    Isaac Julien RA, Lessons of the Hour, London 1983 - Who Killed Colin Roach?, 2019.

    Photographic assemblage of 32 Black and White Ilford Classic FB silver gelatin prints. 45 x 64 cm (each photograph). PHOTO THIERRY BAL/COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, VICTORIA MIRO, LONDON/VENICE, AND METRO PICTURES, NEW YORK.

  • We need these conversations, and when I saw an image of people’s feet on the face of Edward Colston’s statue, it made me feel like there’s a conversation that’s gone wrong, that hasn’t been listened to. I personally would prefer for monuments not to be manhandled, but criminalising the actions of the statue’s removal focuses attention away from why it happened in the first place. It happened because of the indifference and ignorance of those people’s feelings about these monuments, which are disgraced monuments in the eyes of a certain population in Bristol where 20 years of debate got absolutely nowhere. It’s of course ironic that the artwork got tossed into the harbour where he had profited from the ebb and flow of the Atlantic. A newspaper columnist has recently brought up the idea of recasting Colston’s statue as Frederick Douglass – I would be thrilled to see that happen!

    It’s phenomenal when you think about what is affecting those marching against George Floyd’s murder, and particularly the impact of Covid-19 on communities of colour and those on the forefront of the health service. Look also at the toxic nature in which this government and the previous Tory administration have treated these communities – whether it’s the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, or the politics around Brexit.

    When Boris Johnson comes on television and repudiates people we can’t really believe a word that he says, because he’s so part of the problem. When we look at the establishment – and particularly if we look at the political establishment – it’s just so disappointing and so narrow. The damage that has been done is really quite colossal and along with Covid-19, it’s created this tipping point.

    This has slightly been Reach Out To Black Artists Week, but there has already been a shift occurring in the wider arts world, and there’s been an especially amazing reception for African American artists in Britain. Sonya Boyce will be representing us in Venice – the first female black artist to do so, almost two decades after the first (and until now the only) black artist in 2003, Chris Ofili. If you think about the curatorial aspect, though, and about boards and the structures of the art world there’s so much more work to be done. We love that Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize but she was the oldest person to win it, so you just think to yourself, is it just that people have to have ‘experience’ for a certain acknowledgement? I don’t think that’s right.

    I have seen a difference in young curators, though, and I think more widely we have seen a younger generation of white people who have really come forward and taken this mission on as something which concerns them and affects their lives. As an example I was driving with my partner around Santa Cruz recently and we saw a congregation of people who didn’t seem to be social distancing. As we were driving closer we saw they were quite younger — almost boys and girls — and they had these placards for Black Lives Matter. It was incredibly moving, and I think it’s a turning point.

    As told to Adam Koszary.