Isaac Julien, True North C (Black Coat Glacier), 2019. © Isaac Julien. Linda Pace Foundation Collection, Ruby City, San Antonio, Texas.
Isaac Julien, True North: Walking Beach, 2019. © Isaac Julien. Linda Pace Foundation Collection, Ruby City, San Antonio, Texas.
Isaac Julien’s film installation True North is loosely based on the experiences of Matthew Henson (1866–1955), a Black explorer who assisted Robert Peary on his 1909 expedition to locate the northernmost point on the globe, known as true north. Henson reached true north first, followed by Peary and four Inuit assistants. Upon their return, however, Peary claimed the honor for himself and was hailed a hero. Henson received relatively little public acknowledgement of his accomplishment or pivotal contributions to the success of the mission, living in obscurity until the end of his life.
True North, incorporating quotes by Henson, serves as a recognition of the unsung adventurer’s feat and counters prevailing notions about exploration. Julien’s multiscreen work upends the classic wilderness adventure that traditionally features a white male protagonist overcoming hardship to reach acclaim. Instead, True North presents a more expansive, meditative vision of this narrative.
Here, Henson is portrayed as a Black female explorer. She makes her way across the landscape, stumbles precariously near a crevasse and rides a dogsled. As her actions suggest, Henson was a determined figure with an essential, multifaceted skill set, including an ability to translate the Inuits’ language. The film also features the Inuits on the expedition. They, too, played a major role in its success by teaching Henson and Peary how to survive in the harsh landscape. They are filmed not only in action but up close, allowing viewers to see their faces.
Julien purposefully excludes Peary from the narrative so that viewers can experience the expedition anew with key figures who were previously erased. In so doing, he demonstrates that fictionalized accounts may in fact bring us closer to the truth of the expedition and the individuals who achieved this grand and dangerous feat.
Isaac Julien CBE is a British filmmaker and installation artist. His work is known for its non-narrative style that examines with insightful nuance Black and queer identities, the Black diaspora, migration and the underlying effects of capitalist economic systems.
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Matthew Henson’s accounts of events heard in the film are derived from articles about him that appeared in American History Illustrated (April and May 1966). Henson wrote his own book, published in 1912, titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. Beyond recounting his stories of the Artic expeditions he participated in, he also writes admiringly and affectionately about the Inuit he encountered and especially the four who were among his party that reached the north pole: Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah.
Julien speaks of True North as alluding to, beyond Henson, “other kinds of movement—shifts of ice and of the polar landscape— … underscoring the growing need to understand the environment.”
True North is the first in a trilogy of film installations by Julien titled Expeditions. Although each film has specific influences and subject matters, they were made to highlight, as the artist states, “the movement of people around the globe, and … to relate geopolitical issues to the individual.”
Victoria Myrie, the actress who plays Henson in True North, appears in each of the Expeditions films. She may play a role, but she always appears at some point in a white dress, serving as a witness to the unfolding events and linking each of the films to the next.