Isaac Julien: 'Frederick Douglass was interested in photography as an emancipatory tool'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 28 July 2021
The acclaimed British artist and filmmaker brings his new ten-screen installation to the Edinburgh Art Festival
Isaac Julien is renowned for his innovations in multi-screen forms of storytelling. Across a distinguished career, the British artist and filmmaker's use of the moving image has been lauded, particularly for its poetic examination of key Black cultural figures. Following on from his 1989 work Looking For Langston, and 1996's Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask, Julien completes his trilogy with Lessons Of The Hour, a ten-screen film installation which focuses on the life and work of the trailblazing African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.
Initially commissioned in 2019 by the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, this UK premiere will be presented by the Edinburgh Art Festival in partnership with National Galleries Of Scotland. Douglass, the visionary orator, philosopher, and intellectual who escaped from slavery in Maryland, campaigned across the UK and Ireland for abolition, delivering more than 300 lectures over the course of several tours.
'As I learned about Douglass, I became fascinated by the fact that he had actually lived in Scotland,' says Julien. 'And then there was this remarkable coincidence that Douglass scholar and art historian Celeste-Marie Bernier, whose work on Douglass I was a huge fan of, actually teaches in Edinburgh. All of these things came together at a time when there was a proliferation of Douglass scholarship, so what I wanted to do was to make a work that would somehow encapsulate his ideas.'
Lessons Of The Hour features a video installation, evoking the style of a 19th-century salon hang, plus tintype portraits and photos, all of which are based on archival sources, letters, and writings. The result is a work which provides a profound insight not only into the history of both the abolition and suffrage movements, but also into the power of film and photography in documenting social justice. 'The fact that Douglass was really interested in photography as an emancipatory tool is fascinating,' Julien explains. 'He writes about photography as an artform and as an apparatus.'
Julien's work combines the historical and the contemporary, with this installation using montaged film such as FBI footage from the 2015 riots in Baltimore alongside his tableaux vivants; together they highlight how Douglass' work and journey remains relevant to our understanding of today. 'In the beginning of the film, you have a shot where someone has been lynched and is hanging from a tree; but that's fictional footage. And then the modern-day footage is more documentary-like, and has this relationship of reality to it. At the time, we were looking at where the contemporaneous aspects of Douglass' texts were resonating in the present. In a way, I think the use of photography is perhaps a bit darker than Douglass might have thought about. He was very critical of the way in which Black people were being pathologized and stereotyped in the representational regime of the media. And of course, that still happens to this day.'
Lessons Of The Hour, in its depiction and dramatisation of the actions of this monumental figure, emphasises how Douglass' words continue to be pertinent in modern-day discussions on civil rights, especially in the context of Black Lives Matter. 'He was really at the forefront in transnational justice and identity,' Julien says. 'When we were shooting the work, we went to the Assembly Rooms [where Douglass had delivered some of his most famous speeches] and I thought, wow, this space would have been filled with 2000 people. Douglass had such an incredible presence in relation to his passion and commitment to the emancipation of Black people from the bondage of slavery. All these things make Douglass incredibly modern. I made the work before the events of last year, but nonetheless these things were already in the air.'
Isaac Julien: Lessons Of The Hour, Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art (Modern One), Thursday 29 July–Sunday 10 October, 10am–5pm, free; advance booking required.