The Black Body in Arctic Space: Revisioning Racialised Landscapes in the Films of John Akomfrah and Isaac Julien
Chelsea College of Arts, TrAIN Research Centre, University of the Arts London Research Studentship recipient
This thesis explores constructions of the Arctic as a literal and symbolic white space through an investigation of 2 films: John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses (2010) and Isaac Julien’s True North (2004). Framed within the context of Euro-American constructions of the territory through 19th century masculine exploration narratives, my aim is to challenge dominant representations of the territory as a “blank”, “silent” and “stainless” racialised landscape by examining the political and aesthetic strategies at play in the respective films.
The research argues that these artworks simultaneously reclaim the Arctic from an exclusively white history and renegotiate the territory’s position within postcolonial discourse. Taking into consideration fresh global focus on the region, political ecologies and recent neocolonial collusions for ownership, this thesis is anchored by my aim to reassess how the Arctic territories are visualised, positing that this ultimately dictates how the space is navigated and interacted with on an international scale.
If we understand the Arctic to have been constructed as a white history about white men in a white space, then the non-white figure is an anomaly, eradicated and obscured from visual, literal and political representations. This research discusses the significance of Akomfrah and Julien’s films for the development of critical whiteness studies and is driven by the following key questions:
- What do the films reveal for ideas of "northernness", remote landscapes of exclusion and constructed hierarchies of racial whiteness through the colonial encounter?
- Is the placement of the black body within what Jen Hill terms the ‘heart of whiteness’ (2008) playing with the notion of what appears incongruous in a landscape?
- Does the visual and conceptual black-white binary – a prominent feature in both films - function as Marc Black terms ‘multilateral double consciousness’ (2007) wherein, instead of one side dominating the other in the traditional sense of the postcolonial understanding of binarism, each side operates to reveal something for the other, blackness revealing whiteness and whiteness revealing blackness?
Drawing all of these seemingly disparate threads together, this thesis presents an exploration of the interrelation of whiteness, aesthetics, futurism and the emergent field of critical Arctic studies.