“There’s this need to tell useful and meaningful stories,” says Julianknxx about his body of work. The London-based Sierra Leonean artist didn’t set out to become a poet, “It just happened that the stories that I am telling, and the language that I’m finding to tell them is through poetry,” he explains. Julianknxx uses poetry as a tool to convey his story/History, and he doesn’t limit himself to words. For him, poems are a visual hymn. “I hear a story that I want to tell, but then it’s missing the emotion if you just read it on a page. So I always wonder how I can add more emotions to my words. And then that’s where the music comes in. But I also think representation matters. So seeing yourself, seeing the place that you’re from and archiving that also matters,” he argues.
In Praise Of Still Boys—Julianknxx latest visual poem—opens with a message to his daughters. Tell me about your place. They will be asked one day. My daughters. This note is followed by his mom telling his birth’s story in Krio—an English-creole spoken in Sierra Leone—as the film starts. When asked about that choice to begin In Praise Of Still Boys with his daughters and mother, Julianknxx reveals it was never just about him. Telling his story became an urgency with fatherhood. However, acknowledging how he came about has become part of his journey as an artist. To be who he is and where he is right now is the result of people who stood there before him and made Sierra Leone. “Why am I here? What am I doing? How am I useful to this place?” These are some of the questions that motivated and still inform his practice.
“Self-awareness, understanding yourself, where you are from, your own story, your heritage, your ancestry makes it easier to move forward,” he adds. In this visual poem, he highlights precisely this—his roots. While the film is paced by his voice reciting the poem, subtitles in Krio follow. In Praise Of Still Boys is definitely made by a Sierra Leonean for Sierra Leoneans. But it is also made to pique the interest of those who doesn’t belong to the culture. “You have to assume that the audience is smart, so you don’t have to say everything plainly. They have to do some work to get what you are trying to say, but don’t make it so alienated that they can’t be bothered.”
In the film’s visuals, Julianknxx takes us to Freetown—where he grew up—, to tell us his story through the eyes of a group of young Sierra Leonean boys. What strikes the viewer immediately is the dominance of the colour blue, which is reminiscent of the 2016 film Moonlight. Another aspect that is hard to miss is how black skin looks under different lighting. “It’s so much more complicated than just the black skin and its blackness. There are different shades of it. The way it performs under the sun, the moonlight and at sundown are all different,” he emphasizes. The variation of skintones also highlights the significance of blackness in Sierra Leone, which is a country of mixed heritage. “I am from Sierra Leone, but then when you interrogate yourself as a Sierra Leonean, you realize you’re Krio. And being a Krio means your legacy or your history did not start from Sierra Leone”, he explains.
Indeed, Julianknxx’s background is a confluence of freed slaves, Nigerian Yoruba and Portuguese. “It’s a bit more complex than saying I’m from this place, you know. I wanted to be able to pass that complexity down, not just for me but to the wider generation because you hear that kind of story from the US a lot. But you don’t have that from West Africa,” he contends. Here, the blue comes back with the water, an element embodies the transatlantic trade as well as the global story that In Praise Of Still Boys tells.
As part of a larger body of work, In Praise Of Still Boys will be presented in London’s 180 the Strand next year. Currently, Julianknxx is working on a new project focussing on black bodies Black Corporeal.
Watch ‘In praise of still boys’.
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