Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass is an immersive and poetic meditation on the great 19th-century abolitionist. The poignant 10-screen film installation collapses time and space to bridge persistent historical and contemporary challenges of the day. In this profoundly resonating art experience of arresting visuals and sound, internationally renowned London-born artist and filmmaker Sir Isaac Julien brings the historical figure to clear focus for the next generation.

Frederick Douglass, who escaped enslavement, was a masterful writer and orator, one of history’s greatest activists for freedom and equality, and an advocate for women’s suffrage. To combat the disparaging depictions of African Americans as a means to justify bondage, Douglass used the power of his image to shift cultural perspectives. In doing so, he became the most photographed individual of the 19th century. In this installation, Julien’s narrative is informed by Douglass’s powerful speeches and includes excerpts from “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?,” and the prescient “Lecture on Pictures,” which examines the influence of technology and images on human relations. Shakespearean actor Ray Fearon portrays Douglass within the film. Around his commanding visage, Julien weaves Douglass’s writings and filmed reenactments of the abolitionist’s travels in the United States, Scotland, and Ireland, along with contemporary protest footage that makes Douglass’s modern-day relevance and resonance undeniable.

The installation, presented upon the 10 screens where images converge as a whole, then fragment into a montage, can be watched repeatedly. Visitors are welcome to sit in this meditative space where the 25-minute film’s nonlinear viewing experience makes each encounter with the work unique.

Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass was commissioned and acquired by the Memorial Art Gallery 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. The commission and acquisition were also made possible by Barbara and Aaron Levine, 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 at the Memorial Art Gallery, and the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Production of the work was 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. Organized for VMFA by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.


Presented by


Mr. Hubert G. Phipps


Nancy and Wayne Chasen
Mr. and Mrs. R. Augustus Edwards III


Michelle and John Nestler
Michael Schewel and Priscilla Burbank


Marketing support for Evans Court exhibitions is provided by the Charles G. Thalhimer Fund.


This list represents sponsors as of November 1, 2022.


J. P. Ball Studio 1867, Douglass (Lessons of the Hour) (detail), 2019, Isaac Julien (British, born 1960), photograph on gloss inkjet paper mounted on aluminum, 22 ½ x 29 7/8 in. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.