Isaac Julien: drowning in an alien culture


Courtesy of Juan Medina/Reuters


It is shocking to realise that the present migrant crisis as manifested in the  carnage of shipwrecks  crossing the Mediterranean has been going on for so long.  The above  iconic image of a drowned corpse of an African migrant  wrapped in a heat insulating blanket on a tourist beach on the Canary Islands comes from 2004. In 2007 it was appropriated by Isaac Julien for his 16mm film installation The Leopard seen as part of the excellent Protest exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery  this autumn.

To magnify the horror his opening shots of the beach establish it as a tourist destination. He lingers on the sand encrusted feet of what we assume is a sunbather. Then we see that it is a body covered in a foil blanket. Another striking image occurs in the closing sequences which focuses on a young man migrant  being carried through a rococo palace and laid on the floor where he writhes around as though drowning. A leopard painted on the tiled floor fills the screen and its angry snarl reflects the centuries of colonial enslavement.

Julien seems to be suggesting that rescuing a migrant from physically drowning is only half the battle. Preventing him from psychologically drowning in an alien and maybe hostile environment is the harder task.