Installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien was raised in London to immigrant parents from Saint Lucia. It’s easy to imagine him coming of age in the sixties and seventies, taking part in two cultures simultaneously – one at home and another at school – and understand how that might have led to an appreciation of multiple and concurring pictures of the world.
In his artist talk at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, for the opening of his exhibition for Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass, a multi-channel film installation about 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Julien talked about his work in relation to French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theory of knowledge. He cited Foucault’s idea about different versions of truth, specifically. The concept that knowledge is constructed and therefore can be put together differently, is embodied in Julien’s art, on exhibit now through December 10 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.
Sir Isaac Julien was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2022 for “services to diversity and inclusion in art.” He is one of just a handful of Black British artists to have been awarded the honor. In 2023, highlights from his career were featured in a retrospective at the Tate Britain in London. The exhibit Isaac Julien: What Freedom is to Me included over 40 years of his work as an artist.
Julien’s work on view at JSMA, Lessons of the Hour, focuses on Douglass’ life after he escaped from being enslaved and made his way overseas to the United Kingdom where he traveled and spoke to audiences in Ireland, Scotland, and England. With the aid of others, he was able to raise enough money to buy his freedom from slavery and end his life as a fugitive. Douglass returned to the United States, earned fame as an outspoken abolitionist and orator, and notably became the most photographed man of the 19th century.
Julien created this work of art in response to a commission by the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) at the University of Rochester in New York. The curator at MAG, John Hanhardt, has a record of helping to establish the moving image as a work of art, and he invited Julien to create an artwork for MAG’s series “Reflections on Place,” a series that celebrates Rochester’s culture and history. In 2016, after he was first approached, Julien was given a tour of Rochester by Hanhardt, which is when he saw a public sculpture of Frederick Douglass and was inspired to feature him as the subject of his project.
Not knowing much about Douglass, Julien said it was the absence of knowledge that inspired him to spend three years, from 2016 to 2019, conducting research into the famous abolitionist and orator’s life. Julien is interested in knowledge and the way it’s acquired. That interest combines with moving images nicely when he uses the format of multiple screens to illustrate the idea there are multiple ways of seeing; projecting more than one possible version of reality at a time.
Lessons of the Hour is a reenacted documentary with content shown across 10 screens. In addition to using actual historical materials, Julien includes reimagined scenes using actors, and in this sense has much in common with other historical documentaries. The film includes actors Ray Fearon as Frederick Douglass, Charlotte Emerson as Helen Pitts, and Amanda Lawerence as Susan B. Anthony.
Unlike other works in the museum—paintings, sculptures, or even single-screen videos or films—this art cannot be taken in with a single glance. Running 29 minutes from beginning to end, it requires making decisions about which images to view. In this respect, the short film is not a traditional documentary with a linear storyline. The screens fill the whole of the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Gallery at JSMA, and are arranged lengthwise, which is one reason it is impossible to see all the screens at once. Ultimately, the choices you make about which screens to focus on, will determine how the picture in its entirety will be seen. In other words, if you see the artwork more than once, you may or may not (probably not) see it the same, exact way.
You will hear it the same, though, because there is only one soundtrack. The voiceover includes parts from three of Douglass’s speeches: “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” and “Lecture on Pictures.” On occasion, the speeches stop and we’re left to look at the images with just the music in the background. On occasion too, all the screens project the same image, and then it’s like a calm has entered the room.
The scene which the work leads to, is one in which Douglass, portrayed by the British Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon (Douglass was a fan of Shakespeare) speaks to an assembly of people of various ethnicities or races, genders, ages and belonging to different times. 19th-century crowd members sit beside 21st-century compatriots, all paying careful attention; the only identifying difference is their costumes. When Fearon as Douglass delivers his rousing speech, his words are relevant both for the original moment and for our present.
Douglass gave the speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” in Washington D.C. in 1852. In Lessons of the Hour, we hear parts of it as screens project images of the American experience: a parade, a fireworks display, and then a bird’s eye view of riots that took place after a young Black man, Freddie Gray, died while in police custody. Douglass’ voiceover speaks of “the gross injustice and cruelty” to which the enslaved “is constant victim.” The centuries old oration provides a soundtrack for current events. We might ask ourselves, still, What to the African-American is the 4th of July?
The installation is at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art thanks to JSMA’s Executive Director, John Weber. Julien, who divides his time living in England and the United States and is currently Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, met Weber at UCSC when Weber was founding director at the Santa Cruz Institute of the Arts and Sciences. Weber, who was hired as executive director of JSMA in 2019, stated that bringing Lessons of the Hour to Eugene was one of his personal goals since arriving at the University of Oregon.
Lessons of the Hour includes a passage from Douglass’s thoughts on the then new medium of photographs. Douglass was especially hopeful about the objectivity of photographs and the potential to dismantle prejudice: “All they can reasonably ask of us is that we can place them on the wall and allow them to speak for themselves.” No doubt Julien included these musings about the power of images in reference to his own work too, a visual chorus of moving images that speak to the reality we are very much still connected to issues that inspired the speeches of Frederick Douglass.