The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is exhibiting Lessons of the Hour, a ten-channel installation by the celebrated British artist Sir Isaac Julien. Dedicated to the life and work of the prominent African-American abolitionist, social reformer, statesman and writer Frederick Douglass, Julien's installation presents an immersive dive into Douglass' character through a series of intertwined stories that document his experiences as a former slave to his international successes as a free man of color.

Utilizing a combination of analogue and digital technologies, Julien's technique provides a dynamic stage for Douglass' history as viewed through the lens of contemporary circumstances. Relying extensively on the “timely words” contained in Douglass' writing and speeches, Julien seeks to portray the prevailing zeitgeist of his era, reviving Douglass' legacy and imbuing it with a relevance that is all too necessary in our modern times. Historical objects that belonged to Douglass and artifacts related to him are also on view alongside the installation, including portraits, pamphlets and manuscripts.

Exhibition view: Isaac Julien, Lessons of the Hour, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (19 May – 28 September 28 2024). Photo: Emile Askey.

Julien took inspiration for his title from Douglass' speech “Lessons of the Hour”, held at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington in 1894, just a year before his death. Drawing upon his other important speeches, such as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures”, Julien highlights Douglass' approach to the role that technology and picture-making have in establishing meaningful bonds between people, and how they view each other. Douglass was considered the most photographed American of the 19th century.

Isaac Julien has been at the forefront of moving image art for decades. His five-channel installation Once Again... (Statues Never Die) is currently on view as part of the Whitney Biennial 2024. Julien's works are also being exhibited at venues such as Smithsonian American Art Museum, Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art and Mudam Luxembourg. More on the exhibition at MoMA can be found here.

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