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Exhibition Reviews

Exploring Douglass’s Legacy: Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” at MoMA



Isaac Julien. Lessons of the Hour. 2019. Ten-channel 4K video and 35mm film transferred to high-definition video (color, sound; 28:46 min.) and 10 projection screens, dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of the Ford Foundation. © 2024 Isaac Julien. Installation view, Metro Pictures, New York, 2019

The Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibition, “Lessons of the Hour” by Isaac Julien, is an evocative and immersive journey through the life of Frederick Douglass, the visionary African American abolitionist and orator. This installation, displayed on 10 screens of varying sizes, merges historical and contemporary imagery to create a multidimensional portrait of Douglass and his enduring influence on civil rights.

Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour” is a stunning 10-screen video installation that paints a vivid portrait of Frederick Douglass, one of the most photographed men of the 19th century. Julien’s work, blending digital video, found footage, and 35mm film, utilizes a technique he calls “horizontal montage.” This approach allows for a nonlinear storytelling method, seamlessly moving between past and present. The result is a captivating visual and auditory experience that immerses the viewer in the world of Douglass.

One of the exhibition’s most powerful sequences features Douglass, portrayed by actor Ray Fearon, delivering his seminal speeches, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures.” These scenes are juxtaposed with modern and historical imagery, highlighting the timeless relevance of Douglass’s words. Julien’s use of montage effectively bridges the gap between the 19th century and today, emphasizing the ongoing struggle for civil rights and social justice.

Julien also explores Douglass’s relationship with photography, a medium the abolitionist believed could challenge racist stereotypes. The exhibition includes a rare daguerreotype of Douglass by Southworth and Hawes, capturing his dignified presence and reflective gaze. This photograph serves as a focal point in Julien’s narrative, underscoring Douglass’s strategic use of his image to advance the cause of abolition and equality.

The exhibition is rich with archival materials, including letters, broadsides, and handwritten notes, which provide a deeper understanding of Douglass’s life and work. These artifacts, reproduced as bespoke wallpaper in the gallery, offer a tactile connection to the historical figure and the era he inhabited. Julien’s collaboration with Douglass scholar Celeste-Marie Bernier ensures historical accuracy and adds depth to the portrayal of Douglass’s multifaceted legacy.

“Lessons of the Hour” also honors the women who played significant roles in Douglass’s life and the broader abolitionist movement. Figures such as Anna Murray Douglass, Douglass’s first wife and a key figure in the Underground Railroad, and suffragist Susan B. Anthony are depicted alongside Douglass, highlighting their contributions to the fight for equality. This inclusion broadens the narrative, showcasing the collaborative nature of social justice movements.

The installation’s spatial design further enhances its impact. Viewers are enveloped in a dynamic environment where sound and visuals converge, creating a sensory-rich experience. The soundscape, including bird calls, footsteps, and voiceovers, adds an additional layer of immersion, making the viewer feel as if they are walking alongside Douglass in his historical journey.

Julien’s work is a profound meditation on the power of language and imagery in shaping social consciousness. By revisiting Douglass’s speeches and writings, the installation emphasizes the enduring relevance of his message. The voiceover of Douglass’s reflections on literacy and the written word, delivered as the screens momentarily darken, is particularly striking. This moment invites viewers to contemplate the profound impact of Douglass’s literary contributions and his unwavering commitment to justice.

In summary, “Lessons of the Hour” is a masterfully curated exhibition that offers a compelling exploration of Frederick Douglass’s life and legacy. Isaac Julien’s innovative use of multimedia storytelling creates an immersive experience that resonates with contemporary audiences. By bridging past and present, the installation not only honors Douglass’s contributions to the fight for civil rights but also inspires ongoing reflection on the pursuit of equality and justice. This exhibition is a must-see for anyone interested in the intersections of history, art, and activism.