Poetic Licence: Isaac Julien and Peter Doig in Conversation
Art Quarterly
Helen Sumpter
Summer 2017

Isaac Julien and Peter Doig have been friends since meeting as students at St Martin’s School of Art in London in the early 1980s. Now both highly acclaimed artists, they met at Julien’s London studio, shortly after the death of the St Lucian-born poet, artist and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott in March this year. Walcott, whose epic 1990 poem Omeros, which retells Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in the setting of contemporary St Lucia, was influential to both artists. He worked with Julien on his three-screen film/installation Paradise Omeros (2002), which was inspired by his own poem, and wrote a new body of poems in response to selected paintings by Doig for the book Morning, Paramin, published last year. Interview by Helen Sumpter

Isaac Julien was born in 1960 in London, where he still lives. His work includes seductive and arresting single and multi-channel film installations whose narratives draw on real-life events, cultural histories and other artistic disciplines including dance, music, poetry and performance. His acclaimed breakthrough film, Looking for Langston (1989), dramatized the story of Langston Hughes, the American poet, activist and leader of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ in 1920s New York. Other works include Ten Thousand Waves (2010), shown at MoMA, New York, in 2014.
Peter Doig was born in Scotland in 1959 and grew up in Trinidad and Canada before moving to London in 1979 to study art. In 2002 he returned to Trinidad, where he is still based. His paintings – depicting lush and evocative landscapes populated by figures and animals – are as much about colour, the slippery nature of memory and the visual pleasure of painterly mark-marking as they are about their often enigmatic subjects.
HS: Both of you knew Derek Walcott’s work long before you independently met and collaborated with him. How were you first introduced to him?

IJ: I met Derek first through his literature, and through the fact that he’s a native of St Lucia, which is the island where my parents were born. Omeros and other poems of his, such as The Sea is History, stayed with me, as they did with a lot of artists from my generation who are interested in diaspora and the narrative of the sea. In those poems Derek transposes Greek mythology on to the West Indian islands, and in a way makes that become part of literature. He opened a world out on to those themes. I had a fantasy after reading Omeros that I would like to do a collaboration with Derek. In 2002 I was involved in the organisation of a discussion platform in St Lucia on creolisation, which was part of Documenta 11 [the international contemporary art exhibition that takes place every five years in Germany] that year. We invited Derek to the St Lucian platform. He was, I think, very sceptical at first, but he came since it wasn’t far from where he lived and he ended up inviting the whole conference for a party at his house.

PD: Near Rodney Bay?
IJ: Yes, and we debated questions around creolisation and the creole language, which was also a theme that was in my work. I think by the fourth day we’d won him over. I showed him my film Vagabondia (2000), which was shot at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, and which has a creole narration – spoken by my mother, actually – which interested Derek, and that was how the collaboration started.
PD: Had you discussed the Paradise Omeros film project with him before that?
IJ: We’d previously written a letter to him, but after I’d shown him Vagabondia, I gave him a script for Paradise Omeros and invited him to participate in the project. I was very interested in him writing a poem for the film, which he not only did – which created the narration for the work – but he also found the star actor, Hansel Jules, the young man who plays Homer, that I had be unsuccessfully casting for a month in London. Then later when we were shooting in St Lucia, he was writing poems on the film set and then sent the finished work to me.
PD: The poem that’s in the accompanying book?
IJ: Yes, and then we recorded the poem in St Lucia. Derek gave very strict instructions in relation to how it should be read. When we later showed Paradise Omeros in London at the Victoria Miro Gallery, we invited Derek and had a poetry reading with him there.
PD: Derek was very particular about how his work was read; when I did a reading from Morning, Paramin for the launch in St Lucia, Derek coached me the day before. I was actually reading as slowly as I could but he said, ‘You’ve got to slow down so much more, and you’ve got to find the rhythm.’
IJ: Let’s talk about your book, Peter…
PD: How that came about is both an interesting story and an important one because I think a lot of the work I made in Trinidad questions what I’m doing there, really. What’s appropriate for me to paint? What am I looking at?
IJ: You’re like a Trinidadian, Peter, by now. When I first met you, I remember telling my mother, I think Peter’s a shabin or a white creole, because I felt you instinctively understood what I was going through being at art school as a young student from my background. I am sure Derek thought the same about you since I know he was a huge admirer of your work.
PD: I hadn’t met Derek until about three years ago, when his long-term partner, Sigrid, introduced herself and said, ‘Derek’s here in Trinidad. He’d really like to meet you.’ Two days after that initial conversation I was in a meeting with a publisher who unexpectedly suggested pairing me on a project with Derek. When I told him that I’d just met Derek two days previously, he said ‘I know you did. He wants to write in response to your paintings. We arranged Derek to come to a big exhibition I had on in Montreal. I ended up entering my own show behind Derek Walcott in his wheelchair, looking at my paintings through his head and his brain. We’d stop in front of a painting and he’d either start talking, or say, ‘Next!’ He ended up writing 53 new poems. A lot of them refer to him thinking back about Trinidad; they are really beautiful poems.
Derek was important to Trinidad, in that he went there from St Lucia at quite a young age and helped set up [in 1959] the very influential and active Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Trinidad was really cosmopolitan when Derek was there in those early years, possibly even more so than now. Horace Ové [the Britain-based filmmaker and artist born in Trinidad in 1939] said to me, ‘Peter, if I showed you a picture of my childhood friends you’d be really surprised to see how many different nationalities there were.’
IJ: Horace belonged to that generation I would call the Modernist diaspora artists who were educated in the West in the best art schools. It’s something of an untold story of Modernism, those artists who came here from the colonies to study.
PD: Yes, when you read about the prominent artists of that generation in Trinidad you discover they studied either at the Royal College of Art or at the Slade or in the States, and then came back to Trinidad and stayed there. They’re a big influence in Trinidad, although not that well known outside of it.
IJ: I’m also thinking of artists like Denzil Forrester [born in Ghana in 1956, who studied at Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art in the early 1980s] whose paintings you showed last year, Peter, at Tramps [the London gallery space in Peter Doig’s former studio that is programmed by Parinaz Mogadassi, along with Doig and artist Alastair Mackinven].
PD: I remembered Denzil from the Royal College of Art in 1983, when he was a kind of star student. He was making these incredibly ambitious paintings and winning all these big prizes like the Rome Scholarship, and the Harkness Scholarship. He’s been teaching drawing at Morley College in London for the past 30 years and has only recently retired. He lives in Cornwall now and I think the most exciting thing is that now he’s retired he’s right back in painting mode.
IJ: Denzil was the first black artist whose work I saw as a student in a Royal Academy Summer Show. Seeing his older work again last year [at Tramps] made me think this is just like a missing chapter. Do you remember, Peter, when a group of us [art students] entered our work into the Royal Academy Summer Show, in 1988, I think. We did it as a kind of joke…
PD: I don’t think I entered. I certainly didn’t get anything in!
IJ: It was kind of embarrassing because I did get a painting, maybe even two. And they did so because I bought my first Super 8 camera with the proceeds, even though I was much more in the painting gang then.
PD: But we all used to see a lot of films in those days too. The Scala Cinema [then on Tottenham Street] was just up the road from St Martin’s and they had the café that was open late.
IJ: You’ve always been very much into cinema, Peter, and I think that the way that you have incorporated that into your work is really fascinating. This would be a good opportunity to talk about your StudioFilmClub [a regular programme of free film screenings that Doig has held in his studio in Trinidad since 2003].
PD: The first one was called ‘Babylondon’ and we showed films made by Caribbean filmmakers in London about their experiences of living there, but it was actually really centered on Horace Ové. We showed his [two-hour feature] film Pressure (1976) [about a black teenager living in west London in the 1970s], and a lot of his shorter films, followed by the 1980 film Babylon.
IJ: By Franco Rosso, yes, a fantastic film [about a young black musician in London in the 1980s].
PD: And we did the screening with you, Isaac, when you had just finished making Derek (2008) [about the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman]. I think it’s always been important for me to show films that deal with a variety of themes, and we’ve shown a lot of films by gay filmmakers.
IJ: Yes, you also showed Looking for Langston, which is the first film I made that cemented my interest in poetry, and is going to be shown this summer at Tate Britain alongside my exhibition ‘“I dream a world” Looking for Langston’, at Victoria Miro Gallery, for which I’m making some large-scale photographs and also showing archival material. It’s interesting to discuss cinema in relation to post-colonial societies. All the scratched prints from the West eventually make their way to places like Ouagadougou or to Dakar. You have packed audiences for these scratched films, because cinema is incredibly popular in all of those places.
PD: It’s interesting and sad alongside an incredible literary tradition in the Caribbean, there is an equally incredible history of films being shown that’s not really talked about. Cinema is constantly referred to in literature and music.
IJ: Yes, when I made Paradise Omeros, for example Derek really wanted it to be shown in St Lucia.
PD: Derek spent great spells of time abroad teaching but his work was rooted in St Lucia. He was also very keen that the launches and the readings for Morning, Paramin should happen in Trinidad, St Luicia and New York. Sadly, he was only there for the St Lucian one, but it was his idea that in Trinidad they should be at the StudioFilmClub. I think he felt that it was an important venue for the book, as all the paintings that were made in Trinidad were made in that room. It was great that he did these projects with artists.
IJ: Absolutely, and he was an artist himself, of course, and a complete force, as you know.