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Attendant, The (1993)

Courtesy of Isaac Julien

Main image of Attendant, The (1993)
DirectorIsaac Julien
Production CompanyBritish Film Institute
 Normal Films
ProducerMark Nash
ScriptIsaac Julien
PhotographyNina Kellgren
EditorRobert Hargreaves
 James Bygrave
MusicGary Butcher
 Jimmy Somerville

Cast: Thomas Baptiste (attendant); Cleo Sylvestre (conservator); John Wilson (visitor); Hanif Kureishi; Jimmy Somerville

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Memory mixes with desire as a museum attendant is caught up in sado-masochistic fantasies inspired by a 19th century painting of slaves in chains, 'Scene on the coast of Africa'. He remembers his past as a singer, and delivers Dido's lament from Purcell's opera.

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Having tried his hand at feature length narrative with Young Soul Rebels (1991), with The Attendant Isaac Julien returned to more experimental, avant-garde filmmaking. As with much of Julien's work, The Attendant positions racially motivated queer desire within a high-art context, as he follows a closeted black gallery employee who confronts his repressed homosexual desires.

The centrepiece of the gallery, and the film itself, is Fran├žois-Auguste Biard's 19th century work 'Slaves on the West Coast of Africa'. The painting, which depicts black slaves at the hands of merciless white oppressors, literally comes to life when the film's central character is aroused by the arrival of a white man visiting the gallery. These lurid recreations of the paintings that adorn the gallery walls are highly sexualised, and notions of slavery and black history are reconfigured to become subversive fantasies of submission and domination. Indeed, one scene has the attendant being whipped by his leather-clad object of desire, only for the roles to be reversed moments later, when the attendant is shown whipping the white man.

But while the attendant's fantasy life is one of sexual and racial emancipation, his reality is far from it. A brief sequence set at home with his wife reveals his closeted lifestyle, and hints at the difficulties gay black men face in finding social acceptance. Meanwhile, his very presence in the museum space highlights the absence of black figures in typically white art environments, with his menial position adding another level to the film's critique on the expected roles of black men.

Stylistically, the approach to the subject matter is self-consciously voyeuristic. Much like the paintings that hang on the walls, stereotypical icons of queer fetishism (leather, whips, bondage gear) are presented as images for the spectator to enjoy. Julien's probing camera further gives the viewer the impression of spying on the gallery's inhabitants, who are in turn spying on the 'living' paintings.

This play on spectatorship, voyeurism and the gallery environment itself makes The Attendant one of Julien's most reflexive film works. He has continually returned to the museum space in subsequent years, his installations Vagabondia (2000) and Baltimore (2003) again placing black history and sexuality within the white-dominated world of contemporary art.

Michael Blyth

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Julien, Isaac (1960-)
Kureishi, Hanif (1954-)