Issac Julien:

In another one of my classes, we have been examining the short film (around 10 minutes long) The Attendant, by Issac Julien, that explores many of the issues we are discussing. 


A super-quick background on Julien: He’s an English cultural theorist, writer, filmmaker and artist ( he won the Turner Prize in 2001). FYI,  one of his films, Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask,is about the writer of one of readings this week (Frantz Fanon).


Okay, back to The Attendant. Its an piece of video art—making it very difficult to summarize. However, The NY Times already did a very good job:

The Attendant (1993)

10 mins, Colour 35mm, Sound

“The Attendant” (1993) is actually set in a museum: Wilberforce House in Hull, England, which is devoted to the history of slavery. It’s a real place, though in Mr. Julien’s hands it looks surreal.       

The plot revolves around sexual fantasies aroused in a middle-aged black male museum guard — or attendant — by a young white male visitor. Much of the action takes place after closing time. As the guard paces the galleries, a huge 19th-century painting titled “Slaves on the West Coast of Africa”, by the French artist François-Auguste Biard, comes to life, its melodramatic scene of a white master bending over a dying black slave transformed into an up-to-date, leather clad sadomasochistic grouping.

Next, there’s an erotic scene between a guard and a young man in a gallery hung with soft-core drawings by Tom of Finland, one of many references to the contemporary art in the film. Their cries are overheard by a third character, a black woman called the conservator, who approvingly listens through the wall as she cleans the museum’s picture frames.

The film is only 10 minutes long, but it packs in a rich variety of images and moods. They include some funky camp humour (gold-lamé bar-boy; mosquito-size Cupids), a complex sexual and racial dynamic of dominance and submission and a poignant sense of loss, which serves as a reminder that the piece was made at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Holland Cotter, The New York Times (24 November 2006)


The change in the painting “Slaves on the West Coast of Africa” is what I want to focus on. The shift from this scene replicated in tableau to the same actors wearing S&M gear is very disquieting. The scene is suddenly about desire. The urgency of the that shift, the power of that manifestation, unroots the painting from time. It feels part of our time: no longer in the past. If y’all have some time you should check it out—the freedom art has to remix those tropes we have been studying makes them and our connection them apparent in a very different way than our analyzing. Slave Trade on the West Coast


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