Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery acquire film installation by Isaac Julien

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Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery acquire film installation by Isaac Julien
Installation view, Isaac Julien: “Lessons of the Hour,” SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Sept. 24–Dec. 15, 2019. Copyright Isaac Julien, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro. Image courtesy of SCAD.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum have jointly purchased the tour de force “Lessons of the Hour” (2019) by artist and filmmaker Sir Isaac Julien. The moving image installation interweaves period reenactments across five screens to create a vivid picture of 19th-century activist, writer, orator and philosopher Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). Through critical research, fictional reconstruction and a marriage of poetic image and sound, Julien asserts Douglass’ enduring lessons of justice, abolition and freedom that remain just as relevant today.

This is the first joint acquisition by the two Smithsonian museums, which share a historic building in downtown Washington, D.C., and is the first work by Julien to enter each of the museums’ collections. “Lessons of the Hour” is an important addition to the museums’ growing time-based media collections, joining a range of innovative works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum with holdings representing eight decades of media art, and examples of an expanded definition of portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery by leading artists such as Ja’Tovia Gary, Shigeko Kubota and Cecilia Vicuña.

“Isaac Julien’s important meditation on the legacy of Frederick Douglass resonates powerfully within the context of SAAM’s collection representing more than three centuries of artists engaging with the complexities of race and identity in America,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “‘Lessons of the Hour’ enhances SAAM’s growing time-based media collection, which also includes works by artists such as Arthur Jafa, Christine Sun Kim and Simone Leigh that advance the current civic discourse in their exploration of issues relating to civil rights, the ongoing struggle for equality and the legacies of slavery in the United States.”

“The immersive quality of the multi-channel installation allows visitors to be transported back in time to experience the intensity of an era when the nation was at odds with its founding ideals and on the precipice of a new way forward,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “The artwork beautifully communicates the weight of Douglass’ words as one of the nation’s greatest activists, but also illustrates Douglass’ belief in the power of portraiture as an effective medium for social change which had a tremendous impact on visual culture and representation in the 19th century and artists, including Julien.”

Douglass, a leading abolitionist, delivered thousands of lectures calling for an end to slavery and wrote extensively about portrait photography as a tool in the fight for freedom. He understood its power to capture the essential humanity of each subject and to be an engine of social change. “Lessons of the Hour” features passages from Douglass’ key speeches, including the titular “Lessons of the Hour,” “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and “Lecture on Pictures.” Julien weaves together reenacted scenes from Douglass’ life and lectures, filming at his historic home in Washington, D.C., and a restaged studio of famed Black photographer J.P. Ball (1825–1904) as he makes a portrait of Douglass. Images of contemporary Baltimore—the city where Douglass was enslaved and escaped from bondage in 1838—including footage of fireworks and protests in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray Jr. while in police custody, are interspersed as the struggle to make good on America’s promise of equality continues.

“Lessons of the Hour” was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in part through the generosity of the Smithsonian Secretary and the Smithsonian National Board and Agnes Gund, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment.

The 28-minute work debuts for Washington audiences Friday, Dec. 8, and remains on public view through the United States Semiquincentennial in 2026. This one-room presentation, titled “Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass,” is organized by Saisha Grayson, curator of time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Charlotte Ickes, curator of time-based media art and special projects at the National Portrait Gallery. It coincides with the National Portrait Gallery’s “One Life: Frederick Douglass” exhibition, on view through April 21, 2024, and “J.P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 24, 2024.

Born in London in 1960, Julien is a British filmmaker and installation artist whose work breaks down barriers between film, dance, photography, music, theater, painting and sculpture. Known as an innovator of moving-image installations, Julien often centers iconic African Americans—from Matthew Henson to Langston Hughes to Alain Locke—in his powerful cinematic narratives. His work is in the public collections of major institutions internationally, including the Tate (London), the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and Centre Pompidou (Paris), and it was recently the subject of a survey exhibition at Tate Britain. He is the Distinguished Professor of the Arts at the University of California Santa Cruz and is the recipient of prestigious honors including a knighthood. Julien lives and works between Santa Cruz and London.

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