Muse: Stuart Hall

Julien: Kapital, 2013, two-channel video, approx. 31¼ minutes.

 

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By the time I began making films and videos in the early ’80s, radical sociologist Stuart Hall was already a cultural hero to many artists and filmmakers who gathered in London’s artistic workshops and collectives, including one I was involved in founding, Sankofa Film and Video. I remember watching Stuart lecture at the Open University and being utterly mesmerized by his oratorical eloquence and the depth of his critical analyses. The sheer lucidity and intelligence of his pioneering work on race and representation and his groundbreaking development of Gramscian thought impacted me in a very powerful way. So powerful in fact that to this day, over a year since his passing, he remains my friend, my teacher, my colleague and indeed my muse. 

An activist as much as a theorist, he never compromised in either role. I learned from his work with the New Left Review and at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, but without question his input went beyond these quarters into organizations such as the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva), the Arts Council England and the British Film Institute.

Yet it was not at a march, lecture, screening or exhibition that I first encountered Stuart in person, but rather at a nightclub. I would see him out a lot, and it was only much later that I realized, “Oh. That was Stuart Hall.” Eventually, as I grew to know him, I was privileged to discuss my own works in progress. Our first formal meeting was when filmmakers Martina Attille, Nadine Marsh-Edwards, Maureen Blackwood and I invited him to Sankofa while we were working on our 1986 film The Passion of Remembrance. We were dedicated, at that time in black cultural politics, to undoing essentialisms of all kinds. Stuart was very supportive of our work; the precision of the questions he posed, motivated equally by curiosity and love, was a tremendous influence. 

Indeed, I worked with Stuart on nearly every project I did at that time. Our discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography greatly affected the way I visualized black male bodies in my 1989 film Looking For Langston. Wanting to acknowledge his impact on my thinking, I asked Stuart to narrate some of the film. As I am sure many would agree, there was a unique quality to his speaking voice that was wonderfully compelling and impassioned. 

Later, I asked him to play the role of a museum visitor in The Attendant (1993). He complained that he always ended up looking rather serious in the shots of him walking past the François-Auguste Biard painting Scene on the Coast of Africa (1840), but in almost all of the outtakes he couldn’t stop smiling. I remember he was fascinated by the mix of personalities that we’d assembled to participate in our reworking of the painting, using friends like pop star Jimmy Somerville dressed as a fallen angel in cutoff leather shorts!

In the mid-’90s, as interest in the writings of Frantz Fanon grew into a kind of Fanon mania, Stuart was once again a central figure, and one of the most adept at facilitating a productive dialogue between the worlds of contemporary art and critical theory. When my partner, Mark Nash, and I decided to make a film about Fanon, Stuart’s contribution, in the form of a long and fluid interview, formed the critical backbone of the project and the perfect foil to reflections from friends and colleagues such as Françoise Vergès and Homi K. Bhabha. 

Most recently, Stuart’s longtime influence can be seen in two of my films: PLAYTIME and Kapital (both 2013). These projects grew from an extensive research period, central to which has been the conversations between Stuart, the historian Catherine Hall (his wife), Mark and myself. Much of my research consisted in engaging with the wave of contemporary Marxist thought that emerged following the 2008 crash, such as the writings of the social theorist David Harvey. Stuart openly accepted the great influence that Marx had on his own thinking. However, he would never let his enthusiasm dull the insistent criticality that he brought to all that he read. Stuart’s double position—eagerly greeting this new wave of left-wing thought but subjecting it to rigorous critique—was instrumental in helping me find my own path through these complex issues. 

And so, early on in the project, I knew that I wanted to give a public platform to the objections and reinterpretations that Stuart voiced to me in private. Indeed, it was one of the main reasons I organized “Choreographing Capital,” a 2012 event at the Hayward Gallery in which I posed questions to David Harvey. Kapital is a two-screen video made using material filmed during this conversation. Stuart was in ill health at the time, but his contribution was spellbinding, closing the event and adding a level of critique that I will never forget.

As I take Kapital to Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures,” the 56th edition of the Venice Biennale, Stuart’s legacy remains with us all. The biennial interrogates every corner of the global landscape, revising history and putting theory in a contemporary framework. Stuart gave us the toolkit to deconstruct artistic practice and theoretical analysis. For this, I and so many others thank him. He is missed.