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Art Culture

ISAAC JULIEN: Lessons of the Hour

National Gallery Scotland, Modern One.
Until October 10th 2021

Fredrick Douglass asked: What is a slave to the fourth of July? 

The most photographed American in the 19th century, yet frequently forgotten by history, Douglass was born into slavery, became a free famed orator, novelist, statesman, philosopher, intellectual and freedom-fighter. 

International acclaimed artist Isaac Julien creates a ten-screen video installation that serves as a poetic meditation of Douglass’ legacy. 

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Douglass spent two years in Edinburgh during his 1840’s campaign across the UK and Ireland against US slavery. Himself acutely aware of the power of images, he envisioned photography as a powerful tool for social justice. Today, Julien emulates this and uses film, photography and documentary mediums to bring Douglass and the history of abolition movements to the foreground of this exhibition, weaving historical scenes with modern footage to engage parallels with contemporary politics. 

Julien creates an accurate allusion to the history and legacy of slavery, alongside historical and contemporary civil rights movements including fourth of July celebrations. 

The gallery setting gives this historical work a creative licence, using colour, surveillance footage, alongside imagery of lynching, cotton picking, moving water and railroad tracks.  

Lesson of the Hour faces the seated audience in a semi-circular fashion. The work opens in the woods, each screen filming the environment from a slightly different angle, Julien successfully immerses you instantly, by encouraging active looking, as if you were there with Douglass. 

Julien Isaac Reception- Lessons of the Hour (2019)
Image Courtesy of the NGS, the artist and Victoria Miro

The central narrative of the work is Douglass’ famed speech at the Royal Academy, in which he asks the audience, what is a slave to the fourth of July? Throughout the 28 minutes, Julien cleverly uses images alongside Douglass’ words to make us question the role of images in history, alongside the meaning of the American flag itself. 

While not a loud piece of work, this installation is powerful. Julien disrupts our preconceptions of peace, calling us to question the very idea of ‘freedom’. Douglass’ words pierce through history into the space, telling us that ‘celebration is a sham, boasts of liberty act as unholy licence to invite greatness in swelling vanity’. 

This works location in Edinburgh alludes to the city’s shameful past. Referencing founding men of modern Edinburgh, including Chalmers, calling them to ‘send back the blood-stained money’, Douglass’ words speak directly to the audience, ‘You can see the wounds and lashes on my back, but only if I could show you the wounds on my soul’. 

Douglass noted that pictures can only ask us to place them on a wall in the best possible light, and from there, only they can speak for themselves. Julien’s clever use of mediums attempts to make history accessible, moving away from and commenting on UK institutions prevalent past, one of colonialism, white supremacy, and imperialism. 

Julien cleverly uses Douglass’ powerful legacy by injecting it into a modern space, to make us both aware of history, and conscious of the present. I strongly urge anyone in Edinburgh to see this exhibition and learn from Douglass.

[Image Courtesy of Isaac Julien– Macevoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco 2020.
Image Credits: Henrik Kam]