Isaac Julien: Baltimore


Baltimore unfolds across three videos as a narrative of two people, filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and an Afro-Cyborg woman embodied by Vanessa Myrie, making their way through significant cultural sites of the city. The pair traverses the Walters Art Museum, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, and the George Peabody Library. Each institution lays a different claim to history—whether the over 5,000 years of art held at the Walters; diverse figures of black historical personalities, from Egyptian queens to formerly enslaved people, all rendered in wax; or the holdings of the Peabody, a library that supports the first research university in the U.S. The work explores the many ways that history is made, documented, silenced, or foretold, and indicates the artist’s deep concern for the construction of an archive. Julien seeks to create a “third dimension,” a space that draws from Afro-futurism and the past, present, and future of black culture in the U.S.

Each video occupies its own screen, creating a triptych with three timeframes and wide-ranging action. The work centers a diverse cast of black figures, whether represented by Van Peebles, the famous director and actor of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, or Myrie, or historical figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Holiday, or W.E.B. DuBois. Humanity, reality, and time are fluid in Baltimore; some figures in the action are wax, as they are members of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum collection, yet act alongside Van Peebles and Myrie. Ultimately, Van Peebles meets his wax counterpart—a doppelgänger—as if in the mirror, in a scene that is at once contemporary, historical, and futuristic.

The piece was co-commissioned by the Contemporary Museum, Baltimore; the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; and FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology); in association with The Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore; The George Peabody Library, Baltimore; and Eyebeam Atelier, New York; and debuted at Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum in 2004.

Curated by The Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Chief Curator Dr. Asma Naeem.

This exhibition is generously sponsored by the Bunting Family Foundation.