We caught up with the multidisciplinary artist to discuss his poetry, process, and short film Black Room, currently on exhibit.
Julianknxx, Black Room, 2023.
Sierra Leonean poet and multidisciplinary artist Julianknxx is currently exhibiting his short film Black Room, as part of a group show curated by Ronan Mckenzie. Titled To Be Held, the exhibit showcases a variety of mediums, spanning painting, sculpture, film, and scent. It encourages dialogue and self-reflection, evoking ideas of what it means to see and be seen, to feel safe and accepted in a space, and to trust: “To be held in a space is to relax into one’s breathing because we know that we’re not alone.”
Julianknxx responds to this theme with a film installation, Black Room. Highlighting western cities’ historic and contemporary reliance on Black life, it meshes written poetry, music, and visuals into an all-encompassing, enthralling short film. Archive film clips keep history alive, reminding its viewers that the current socio-political structure in the UK was built on oppression, and prompts them to truly evaluate the foundation of society. Set to the voices of musicians THABO and Afrika Mamas, as well as the artist’s own poetry, the film touches on themes of identity and the human experience. While never waiting for answers, Julianknxx asks a gripping question: “how much darker does it need to get before they see us?”
We had the honour of speaking with Julianknxx about Black Room, how he communicates grand themes in succinct ways, and the dialogue that such work prompts.
Black Room in To Be Held at the Carl Freedman Gallery.
Now for the interview…
When did you start creating art and have you always worked in a multimedia style?
So I started off in poetry. Writing was my first way of presenting ideas, or stories. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a multidisciplinary artist, it was more so, what other ways can you tell the stories? How can the words move from the page into a different medium? Because sometimes the page is not enough. Sometimes, when you’re carrying certain histories that you’re trying to communicate, often the page isn’t clear, so you have to find other ways to express it. We often hold the page for poetry as the Holy Grail, and for me, it’s a question of, how do we think of new ways to engage in language and bring in other people into that space where they don’t have to engage with the work in the ways that “society” tells us to? So I started making films.
How do you communicate such large ideas in such succinct ways?
That’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by with poetry. And also the language that we use back home in Sierra Leone, using short forms or shorthand to express big ideas, is something I’ve always been drawn to. So the older I get, the more I try to experiment and bring in those practices that we saw our grandmas use or people back home use. They’ll tell a story, break out into song, into prayer, and then come back into the story.
How did your upbringing in Sierra Leone influence you today as an artist?
We see the world based on who we are. The world is informed by everything that we’ve seen before, and experienced before. So we bring all of that into a space of observing. So my work is 100% influenced by that. How? It’s the multiple ways that I use language, like music and poetry. And also everyday poetry — listening to people and picking up words that they say that remind me of something. And also the way we sit down and talk about the past. So yeah, kind of creating a living archive in a way.
What is your typical artistic process like?
It’s a lot different now, because I have a studio. The process is so varied. Initially, I always used to start with a poem and then open it up. Now, there are other ways, like research, because now I have the time to do research. Then we can dissect the research in the studio. Then I respond with a poem, and produce the film in the studio.
The To Be Held exhibition explores what it means to be seen and cared for — what part of this theme resonated with you and how did you interpret it through Black Room?
I first started exploring the work for a residency that I did here (180 Strand), actually. So Ronan reached out, and she was like, “I’m doing this exhibition, it’s called To Be Held, and I’d like you to present something”. She saw my work online, because I always try to do an online edition of my work, and said, “I’ve seen this online edition and it would be good to see what the exhibition version of this would look like? Would you be up for it?” And she’s a good friend, I trust her mind and her thinking, so I was like, “yeah, let me sit with it and get back to you”, as I was already thinking about opening up the work into a space.
So the work is called Black Room, it’s after a poem that I wrote of the same name. And it came from thinking about this idea of the spaces that Black people are in, and how we tell our stories in those spaces. What are the markers of our journeys here in the UK, a lineage from Sierra Leone or Africa? What is the history that brought us here? So then I started thinking about how I could invite people into the poem, into this Black Room, this space that holds you. Also the intention of the form — the shape of the screen is quite long and thin. So you are in this black space, and then you have this sort of slit in the wall that you can see through. It opens up the poem through that lens.
Ronan has a real care for community and a care for telling stories. Her gallery is called Home, and coming into the space that she’s curated, but that is still open for everyone to tell their stories, is a really special thing. It’s so great when someone really sees the care in your work and tries their best to make sure they present it in the right way. I know I can trust this person to come on this journey with me, or to go on a journey with them.
What was the decision to create online versions of your pieces?
I didn’t grow up in the art world, I didn’t go to art school. I got into this space quite late and I’m self taught. So I don’t think art should just be within its own ecosystem where if you’re outside of that world, you don’t engage. Also with the kind of work that I make, a lot of the people involved in it are probably not going to be able to go visit the gallery. They probably live far away or don’t really go to galleries or museums. So how can I reach them? I think the idea of having an online edition or something that speaks to the work, even though it’s not the full thing, gives you enough to sit with and understand the language.
Your work challenges ideas and sparks conversations about big themes. How has the public reaction been, online or at the exhibit? Has it prompted a dialogue of ideas?
I don’t think my work is made for social media, it doesn’t look snappy and I don’t know if it fights against other content that wins your attention quickly. But the people that sit with it and go through it, there’s a dialogue. People message me all the time, people invite me to other cities to present or give talks or engage with similar ideas in their cities. I don’t know if it’s the online edition but I guess it’s a way to see something, to understand what the artist is about. The way we communicate now, technology plays a big part. So how do we use that in a way that holds the same integrity as an art space? And there’s been loads of dialogue from that. I’m making work consistently in different places, in different cities, always engaging with the same themes — talking about Black lives and how we live in cities now, speaking about the way we exist and breathe right now. What does it mean to be alive? What does aliveness look like in the black diaspora? And what does it mean to dream? I think we are all thinking about these things. I think it’s just the human condition.
What do you hope people take away from Black Room?
There are a few things. So the poem opens up with a cry, with Afrika Mamas saying “maye”, a call in crisis. People will say “maye” when something disastrous or something epic has happened. So that’s what opens up the poem. The cry is intense, but it’s also of resilience. Towards the end, there is this kind of joy. We still push through these structures, we still push through these spaces that we’re put in. And I think for me the repeating question I want people to think about is: how much darker does it need to get before the lights come on? How much darker does it need to get before they see us?
Julianknxx, Black Room, 2023.