While widely acknowledged as an icon of abolitionism, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) is less understood as an early figure in the intersectional pursuit of human rights, a dissonance which informed filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien’s immersive moving-image installation Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass (2019). In this wide-ranging conversation, Julien is joined by the celebrated philosopher and educator Judith Butler and acclaimed Douglass scholar Celeste-Marie Bernier to explore Douglass’ legacy as well as the influential role of figures such as his wife Anna Murray-Douglass, the suffragettes, and others important to his life and voice. Butler’s renowned scholarship in the fields of philosophy, ethics, and feminist, queer, and literary theory guides her moderation of the conversation.
Currently the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, Butler has compelled generations of activists, artists, and students to grapple with notions of gender performativity, individualism, and power. As professor of United States and Atlantic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Bernier specializes in the literatures, histories, politics, visual cultures, and philosophies of women, men, and children living in the African Diaspora. Julien worked closely with Bernier on Lessons of the Hour’s narration to construct “tableaux vivants” that reimagine Douglass’ relationships to a range of key historical figures, including Murray-Douglass, his second wife Helen Pitts, and the suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
ABOUT THE PARTICIPANTS
Celeste-Marie Bernier is professor of United States and Atlantic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She has authored multiple books, including African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present (Edinburgh University Press and University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and Characters of Blood: Black Heroism in the Transatlantic Imagination (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Forthcoming publications in 2021 include Battleground: African American Art 1985-2015 (University of Georgia Press, 2021) and The Anna Murray and Frederick Douglass Family Papers and Douglass Family Lives: The Biography. Currently she is in progress on Living Parchments: Artistry and Authorship in the Life and Works of Frederick Douglass (Yale University Press). Bernier has received a UK Philip Leverhulme Prize in Art History, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellowship, and was awarded a Terra Foundation for American Art Program Grant. She was the recipient of an AHRC Leadership Grant for her project on the Anna Murray and Frederick Douglass family and is currently working on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship Project titled “Sacrifice is Survival.”
Judith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. She served as founding director of the Critical Theory Program as well as the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs at UC Berkeley, funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. She is the author of more than twenty books that have been translated into twenty-seven languages, including Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (1987), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (1993), Excitable Speech (1997), and Undoing Gender (2004). Her most recent books include: Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), Senses of the Subject (2015), Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), and The Force of Nonviolence (2020). She is the co-editor of Vulnerability in Resistance (Duke University Press, 2016). She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University in 1984.
Isaac Julien, CBE RA (b. 1960) is an artist, filmmaker, and educator whose multi-screen film installations and photographs incorporate different artistic disciplines to create a poetic and unique visual language. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark; The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; MAC Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; the De Pont Museum, Netherlands; Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Pompidou Centre Paris; and MoCA Miami. He has exhibited at the La Biennale de Venezia, Johannesburg Biennale, Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, and Shanghai Biennale. Julien is the recipient of The Royal Academy of Arts Charles Wollaston Award 2017 and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of the Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is developing the Isaac Julien Lab. He lives and works in London and Santa Cruz.
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The West Coast premiere of Lessons of the Hour includes an exhibition of Julien’s related photography and selections from the McEvoy Family Collection that further explore questions of identity, justice, history, and image-making in the film installation. New Labor Movements, a resonant original program of film and video shorts curated by Leila Weefur, explores contemporary visions of America and concepts of transnational Blackness. A series of online conversations with these artists and invited thinkers and scholars take place throughout the run of the exhibition. The project is produced in part with the partnership of the Isaac Julien Lab at UC Santa Cruz. Led by Julien and his collaborator, Mark Nash, the Lab offers an intensive research-based graduate program that emphasizes partnership and inter-disciplinary collaboration with contemporary artists, curators, and institutions across the globe.
This conversation is co-presented with the San Francisco Public Library in conjunction with their celebration of Women’s History Month.