In celebration of Black History Month, our Featured Work is No Moon Shining, a major photographic work by Isaac Julien from his series, Ten Thousand Waves.

No Moon Shining (Ten Thousand Waves Series)

© Courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Isaac Julien

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Mist lies low in a dream-like valley depicted in this large-scale photograph by Isaac Julien. A lone path cuts its way through green hills that rise up like mythical Chinese dragons. Capturing a place of extraordinary beauty in a remote part of China, this work relates to Ten Thousand Waves, a multi-screen installation produced in 2010, in which the artist poetically weaves together stories linking China’s ancient past and present.

No Moon Shining was photographed during the same period that Julien filmed on location for Ten Thousand Waves in the remote Guangxi province and in various sites around Shanghai. Focused on Chinese immigration, his film is a meditation on unfinished journeys, exploring the transience of people as they cross countries and continents. Julien’s original inspiration for the film was an event that took place on 5 February 2004 in which 23 Chinese migrant cockle-pickers drowned in an incoming tide in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. Moved by this tragic event, Julien commissioned the Chinese poet, Wang Ping to collaborate with him on a new work commemorating the lost lives of the cockle-pickers. This resulted in a poem, Ten Thousand Waves an excerpt of which includes:

On the night of the Lantern Festival
We stream into the sea
Jumbos, tiernels
Three-forked prongs
The wind bites our ears, hands, and toes
Home, we say, home

(Wang Ping, Ten Thousand Waves)

Julien recorded Wang Ping reading the poem, eventually using the soundtrack to accompany his own film. Ten Thousand Waves explores ideas surrounding death, spiritual displacement, and the uniquely Chinese connection with ‘ghosts’ or ‘lost souls’. Julien’s film links the Shanghai of the past to the present, symbolising the Chinese transition towards aspiration and affluence. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2010, he commented that:

It’s a way of connecting the present and the past, ghosts and modernity. It’s also about people moving and migrating. I found myself wondering about those cockle pickers – why would those people make such long journeys? What is this drive towards modernity and betterment?

Ten Thousand Waves was exhibited at the MOMA, New York, in 2013.

Isaac Julien’s parents were born in the Caribbean, and as part of the Windrush generation, emigrated to Britain in the 1950s. Although Julien was born and grew up in Manchester, his family’s cultural background and history continues to inspire his work, in particular the effects of migration on personal identity and issues related to living within a diaspora community.

After graduating from St Martin’s School of Art where he studied fine art and film, Julien completed post-doctoral studies at EAVE, Brussels. He established a reputation as an innovative filmmaker during the early 1990s, notably with his break-through film, Looking for Langston in 1989; followed by Young Soul Rebels, a prizewinner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Since then his practice has shifted further towards the visual arts, although film and photography are central to his practice.

Julien was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001; and won the Grand Jury Prize at the Kunst Film Biennale in Cologne in 2002. An internationally recognised artist, he has held numerous prestigious academic posts including, at present, Professor of Media Art at Staatliche Hoschschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe, Germany; and Chair and Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Arts, London. He is Patron of the Stuart Hall Foundation and Trustee of Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town, South Africa. In 2017, Julien was awarded CBE for his services to the arts.

In 2008 Julien curated a major exhibition on the life and work of Derek Jarman at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Julien’s multiscreen installations include Western Union: Small Boats (2007), Ten Thousand Waves (2010) and Playtime: Kapital (2014). Stones and Diamonds, his film set in the landscape of Iceland, was screened in Sydney; Aspen, Colorado; Venice; Miami, Switzerland and London during 2015–16. His exhibition, “I dream a world”, Looking for Langston featured at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, in 2017.