Art and History of Consciousness Professor Sir Isaac Julien honored in 2023 ArtReview’s Power 100 list

Sir Isaac Julien 

ArtReview, one of the world’s leading contemporary art magazines, has named University of California, Santa Cruz Arts and Humanities Professor Sir Isaac Julien as the fifth most influential artist in its ArtReview Power 100 list. 

“Julien uses and then redefines the visual medium as a tool against cultural erasure and capitalism, " wrote Prince Shakur in a May 2023 essay in ArtReview. In the essay about “What Freedom Is To Me,” an exhibition of Julien’s work at London’s Tate Britain, Shakur called attention to Julien’s insistence on “boundless, often queer Black histories as a means of conjuring a liberating dream space in the face of reality.”

Julien, a critically acclaimed British installation artist and filmmaker, is Distinguished Professor of the Arts in the Arts Division and History of Consciousness in the Humanities Division at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he and Professor Mark Nash, a distinguished independent curator, film historian and filmmaker, established the Isaac Julien Lab in 2019.   

This year marks the first time that all of the top ten artists on the ArtReview list were recognized for making work that advances social and political issues. 

ArtReview praised Julien for his “transgressive reworkings of history and time itself, (which) have expanded our potential to deal with the complexities of the present and paved the way for generations of artists to come.”

On his Instagram page, Julien reacted to this honor.  “Thank you Art Review for your kind support and for that incredibly moving review/text of ‘What Freedom means to me’ by Prince Shakur which I will cherish for a long time!,” Julien posted.

His high ranking in ArtReview is only the latest of Julien’s recent accolades. 

Julien was listed among a group of luminaries in Queen Elizabeth’s 2022 Birthday Honors List in honor of her Platinum Jubilee for his services to diversity and inclusion in art. 

Also in 2022, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the international organization best known for the Academy Awards, extended an invitation of membership to Julien, putting him at center stage once again.

UCSC Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder said that Julien’s recent honors call  attention to his powerful, discipline-spanning work, while highlighting his important contributions to both the Arts and the Humanities. 

“Sir Isaac Julien’s work uses photography and film to operate as a kind of aspirational time machine bringing us closer to historical possibility and interrogating issues such as racial violence, queer identity, and displacement,” she said. “His work transcends categories and genres.” 

ArtReview’s recognition of Sir Isaac Julien speaks to the global reach and impact of his body of work,” said UCSC Arts Dean Celine Parreñas Shimizu.  "As I said at my remarks during the opening of his retrospective at the Tate, ‘Sir Isaac’s groundbreaking exhibitions and body of work are powerful for helping the global community – and life-changing for our students.’ And I hope that the honors he received from ArtReview, and his recent knighthood, draw increased attention and recognition to the Isaac Julien Lab at UCSC, as well as the platforms of exhibition and dissemination that Professor Julien shared with his students here at UC Santa Cruz.”

ArtReview also prominently mentioned UCSC Anthropology Professor Anna Tsing and UCSC Professor Emerita in the History of consciousness and Feminist Studies departments Donna Haraway in the same Power 100 list. 

ArtReview celebrated Tsing for "her understanding of the Anthropocene – not as an existential planetary event, but as something occurring locally and with different intensities and causes and consequences – has been enthusiastically adopted by the art world. Tsing’s redefining of the relationships between human, nonhuman and object has had wide influence, evident in the ecological turn taken by many artists and curators in their work."

The same issue called Haraway "a touchstone: her writing addresses so many of our current issues, from the environment, to gender and queer identity, to AI and tech. Haraway’s thinking is nothing if not intersectional: regarding her papal citation, coming despite her long history of criticising the Catholic Church, she quipped, ‘Some baby Jesuit who’s into animal studies and science studies and feminist theory for some weird reason has been reading me’. They’re not alone."

A distinguished career 

Julien’s practice is informed by the critical and theoretical ambition of British cultural studies, always viewed through an aesthetic regime. He has collaborated with affiliated faculty, including Professor of Literature Chris Connery, and with History of Consciousness alumni including Lisa Bloom, author of the recently published book Climate Change and the new Polar Aesthetics.

Julien’s art practice draws from and commenting on film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting, and sculpture, uniting them to give voice to the experiences of disregarded, often Black, and queer narratives.

“I think about the sheer amount of concentration one needs to do the work,” Julien said in a recent interview with UC Santa Cruz News. “One must try to not let anything including the high points detract from that. It’s important to keep one’s head in place, as it were, and one’s feet firmly on the ground.” 

Julien is offering an undergraduate History of Consciousness course to UCSC students this winter, “What Freedom Is To Me,” which is also the name of the survey of his work at the Tate. The class is an opportunity to study with Julien and offers insight into the production and critical reception of moving image, video art and installation work by examining contemporary and historical art practice.