Isaac Julien

'Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour'

Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour is an installation inspired by episodes in the life of Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the visionary African American abolitionist, activist, writer, and public speaker.

Artist Isaac Julien acknowledges not only the power of Douglass’ ideas, but also his extraordinary presence as the most photographed American of the 19th century. Douglass had a clear understanding of slavery and the cultural and political forces that impacted the world in which he lived, and his work on behalf of human rights continues to inspire us today.

Isaac Julien is a pioneer of the art of the moving image who, since the early 1990s, has innovated a distinctive non-linear, multiscreen form of storytelling. Drawing from painting, architecture, photography, performance, and sound design, Julien constructs poetic narratives of hybrid scenes that create a space for meditation on political and cultural questions.

Signature image for Isaac Julien exhibition
"North Star," from "Lessons of the Hour." Image courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures New York, and Victoria Miro London/Venice

Through extensive use of Douglass’ timely words, Julien gives expression to the zeitgeist of Douglass’ era, his legacy, and the ways in which his story may be viewed today. Julien’s vision is informed by some of Douglass’ 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 Douglass’ vision of how technology can influence human relations.

In the installation, Douglass interacts with other cultural icons of his time, including his first wife Anna Murray-Douglass; the two English Quakers, Anna and Ellen Richardson, who helped Douglass secure his freedom and return to the U.S.; Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist and Douglass’ long-time friend; Ottilie Assing, a feminist friend and lover; and Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist. Julien chose these individuals as representatives of ideals of equality and as pioneers in the history of civil rights.

The present film installation is a new, five-channel iteration of Julien’s project specially commissioned by SCAD. It was originally commissioned by the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester with the partnership of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and with generous support from Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss, the Zell Family, Ford Foundation, VIA Art Fund, Lori Van Dusen, and Deborah Ronnen and Sherman Levey.

About the artist

Portrait of artist Isaac Julien

A Turner Prize-nominated artist, Julien creates multiscreen film and photography installations that incorporate multiple artistic disciplines into a distinct visual language. His work is included in the collections of institutions around the globe: the Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. In 2013, a monographic survey of his career, "Riot," was published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Install Views

Programs and events


Frederick Douglass: Lessons of the Hour is curated by Humberto Moro, curator of SCAD exhibitions.

Museum Admission

The exhibition is free for museum members and SCAD students, faculty and staff with a valid SCAD Card. Open to the public with the cost of museum admission.

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