February 25, 2019 - Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester - Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass
February 25, 2019

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester

Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour (still), 2019. Courtesy the Artist, Metro Pictures New York, and Victoria Miro London/Venice.

Isaac Julien
Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass
March 3–May 12, 2019

Meet the artist: March 3, 2–3pm, Isaac Julien and MAG’s Senior Consulting Curator of Media Arts John G. Hanhardt

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
500 University Ave
Rochester, NY 14607
United States


The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester is pleased to announce the exhibition Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass, featuring a ten-screen installation titled Lessons of the Hour by artist Isaac Julien. The work is inspired by episodes in the life of Frederick Douglass (1818–95), and the issues of social justice that shaped his life’s work. Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass will open at MAG on March 3, 2019, with a two-gallery presentation featuring, in the first gallery, three tintypes—an early type of photography in which the photographic emulsion is presented on a metal plate. These are portraits of performers in Lessons of the Hour. The second gallery will showcase the world premiere of the ten-screen film installation.

Isaac Julien created the installation using both analogue and digital technologies. He describes the exhibition as a “staging of history seen through a contemporary lens. It opens with tintypes suggesting the archive of the past, and which take on additional resonance in the multi-screen installation that follows.” The exhibition will be on view at MAG through May 12, 2019. Lessons of the Hour will also premiere at Metro Pictures, New York, on March 8, with a presentation of large-scale photographic works and the 10-screen film installation.

Frederick Douglass was a visionary African American abolitionist, a freed slave who was also the most photographed man of the 19th century. Julien’s project is informed by some of the abolitionist’s most important speeches, such as “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures,” the latter being a text that connects picture-making and photography to his vision of how technology can influence human relations. In the film, the character of Douglass will interact with other cultural icons of his time, namely photographer J.P. Ball; Anna Murray and Helen Pitts, who were Douglass’ two wives; Anna and Ellen Richardson, the two English Quakeresses who allowed Douglass to return to America as a free man; Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist and Douglass’ longtime friend; and Ottilie Assing, a feminist friend and lover. Mostly women, these characters were chosen for being representatives of ideals of equality, which were as important then as they are today.

Through extensive use of Frederick Douglass’ “timely words,” Isaac Julien gives expression to the zeitgeist of Douglass’ era, his legacy, and ways in which his story may be viewed today. The work was shot in Washington, DC, where Douglass lived late in life, and in Scotland, where Douglass was an active member of the “Send Back the Money” movement and where he delivered a number of anti-slavery speeches, which Julien restaged inside London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Douglass delivered more than 300 lectures in Scotland, Ireland, and England as he sought to affirm his struggle for equality as a global citizen who was very much ahead of his time.

The project curator John G. Hanhardt notes, “Isaac Julien is a master of the moving image. His films and installations demonstrate a complete command of the medium. In an extraordinary body of work spanning almost three decades and including such masterpieces as Paradise Omeros (2002) and Ten Thousand Waves (2010), Julien has created installations that bring history and individual stories alive. There is no artist working today who makes such compelling and powerful statements about global forces shaping history and our world. His moving images astonish and inform, and demonstrate how art can speak to all of us.”

Jonathan P. Binstock, MAG’s Mary W. and Donald R. Clark Director, has said that “realizing this project and bringing Isaac Julien, one of the most important and influential artists working today, to Rochester is the culmination of one of MAG’s grandest ambitions, which is to be a platform for the creation of new works of art for our local audience that will be relevant globally. We look forward to sharing this work of art inspired by Rochester with audiences around the world.”​​

Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass is the second exhibition to be presented as part of “Reflections on Place,” a series of media art commissions inspired by the history, culture, and politics of the City of Rochester, New York, and curated by world-renowned authority on the moving image John G. Hanhardt. The first exhibition, NOSFERATU (The Undead), by Javier Téllez was on view at MAG April 22–June 17, 2018. The third commission, by artist Dara Birnbaum, will be on view at MAG April 14–October 13, 2019.

Project Credit Line
The “Reflections on Place” series of media art commissions by the Memorial Art Gallery is presented by the Zell Family, and Deborah Ronnen and Sherman Levey.

Lessons of the Hour was commissioned and acquired by the Memorial Art Gallery with generous support from Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss, Ford Foundation, VIA Art Fund, and Lori Van Dusen. The commission is also made possible by Barbara and Aaron Levine, Deborah Ronnen, the Maurice and Maxine Forman Fund, the Marion Stratton Gould Fund, the Herdle-Moore Fund, the Strasenburgh Fund, and the Lyman K. and Eleanore B. Stuart Endowment Fund. Production of the work is generously supported by Metro Pictures, New York; the Arts Division of the University of California Santa Cruz; Lauri Firstenberg; and by Eastman Kodak Company, on whose film stock the installation was shot.

In Rochester, the exhibition is made possible by the Margaret Davis Friedlich and Alan and Sylvia Davis Memorial Fund, the Robert A. and Maureen S. Dobies Endowment Fund, the Kayser Fund, the Elizabeth and Eric Rennert Family Foundation, the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund, and an anonymous donor. 

Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester
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