Overwhelming. Pummeling. Invigorating. Meditative. Visceral.
These are the words I wrote down after viewing Isaac Julien’s “Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass” an epic, 10-screen film installation exploring the life and legacy of the 19th century abolitionist, writer and statesman at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts. After eight months of in-home entertainment, to be surrounded by Julien’s screens showing scenes from Douglass’ life and excerpts from his speeches was jolting. The combination of Douglass’ words (Douglass is portrayed by actor Ray Fearon) aligned with images of majestic landscapes and scenes from his life post-enslavement is both enormous and intimate, part of a constant tension that exists within the work. Familiar images of enslavement, like backs scarred with whiplashes, remain shocking and perhaps become even more piercing in this context.
The half-hour experience is physically engaging — bodies pivot and heads turn trying to take in all 10 screens, and there’s an instinct to try to find the viewpoint that will allow you to see as much of the action and as many of the screens as possible. It requires a kind of engagement with the work that can be both exhausting and energizing.
Instead of a static exhibit that is merely meant to be looked upon, “Lessons” activates the subject of slavery and the African American experience in a way that’s thrilling, and at times emotionally draining.
The installation is intentionally reminiscent of the salon-style picture groupings seen in museums during Douglass’ era and uses screens of different sizes and spacings. This lack of uniformity in the presentation can be destabilizing, but it also masterfully evokes the 19th century when Douglass gave the speeches re-created in the film, almost placing the viewer inside Douglass’ world.
To see an installation focusing on the life of Frederick Douglass in a year fraught with conversations about the ongoing legacy of white supremacy, slavery and institutionalized racism is to be thrown into the center of the zeitgeist in a way that is both profound and difficult. The parallels between then and now are reinforced as Julien juxtaposes images of Douglass’ world with contemporary American cities, reminding us that the issues of racial equality and freedom he advocated remain vital topics. Although the exhibition was planned at McEvoy months before the Black Lives Matter protests followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, its timing feels undeniably appropriate.
In writing this story it was clear that the feelings of a white arts writer were not the most important thoughts on the Black experience the work addressed. As such, Datebook invited three Bay Area Black artists/educators to a screening of “Lessons of the Hour” to discuss what viewing the complex, visually spectacular work was like for them.
Writer, educator and filmmaker Natalie Baszile, best known for her 2014 novel “Queen Sugar,” was joined by poet, activist and educator Tongo Eisen-Martin and artist, curator and educator Leila Weefur, who curated “New Labor Movements,” a film program on view at McEvoy in conversation with “Lessons” that explores contemporary visions of America and concepts of transnational Blackness. Our gathering was held Nov. 2, one day before the 2020 election. Here’s some of the dialogue.
Natalie Baszile: I am profoundly moved by that experience. I expected something like this, but I barely have words for that experience.
Tongo Eisen-Martin: It’s kind of a strange way to engage such a mass expression of violence and then be given Frederick Douglass as both the protagonist and almost the avatar. It swirled me around a little bit. This image is entrenched, both in trenches then and trenches to come. To get this perfectly presented … to be beamed up into there was trippy.
Leila Weefur: I was brought back to a conversation I had with Isaac before the show. He was talking about how he was considering the circularity of time. In this presentation in all these screens something that’s particularly poignant is he’s given us different vantage points to history through this singular yet simultaneous perspective of Frederick Douglass.
What was the physical experience like watching multiple screens?
NB: An assault on the senses, it was both overwhelming and invigorating. What I appreciate about it is the physicality of the experience which is in so many ways parallel. The intensity of the experience parallels these last few months in life. This constant struggle to take it in and inhabit it.
TEM: It also put me in a place of being careful because I wanted to pay respect to every image. I was always looking for how can I watch this the most respectfully? It put me in almost a series of quick, gentle decisions.
LW. The first time I saw it was on a computer screen. It was like a grid of squares; he mapped the sizes and layout almost exactly. It’s quite visually arresting to see it in person and have these massive screens presenting these really visceral images. I don’t know that I’ve seen the complete piece yet; it’s kind of impossible. I think something this exhibition does really well, as far as the sensorial experience of it, is trace or escort you through history in sound. There’s a rhythm he created with all of the sound throughout. There’s the train, his footsteps through the grass, the whip, the sewing machine.
NB: To me what was also happening was the insistence on restraint. Here you have this figure who has endured so much, and watching his narrative unfold, you want to be respectful because everything about him demands respect.
TEM: I also had an instinct to join a unity of intention, to see where we were going to look, to be guided.
On the use of imagery
LW: This whole piece is … how we’re moving through time. I love how it opens, with Frederick Douglass’ movement. He takes us in the beginning from this very idyllic, pastoral landscape and tracing moments and bodies hanging from trees and lynching to the urban landscape where there’s a contemporary lynching happening. Something about seeing those parallels in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious or explicit is more something that’s felt. It’s really emotional right now because of where we are in time.
NB: The little bit I know about the movement away from portraiture into photography and how that was a democratic process, one of the things I so loved about this was the images of the Black people who could have their photos made. It made me think about what’s happening now with Black artists and how there’s this renaissance in the celebration of Black bodies in figurative portraits. To see this early evidence of this where Black people can finally assert their humanity with a photograph, to think about how we were invisible to other people before, that is just mind-blowing.
When did you first learn about Frederick Douglass?
TEM: I can’t remember a time without Frederick Douglass. He’s at the beginning of my sentient journey.
Leila: My mother was a Panther. I think it was just really ingrained in me, Frederick Douglass’ history.
Natalie: I don’t remember that initial awakening. It seems he’s always been, if not part of my formal education experience, certainly a familial experience of him.
NB: There’s that moment in the piece where Douglass is at the podium, he’s talking about “What is the Fourth of July to the slave?” What I appreciate about Douglass’ eloquence is when you think even today, one day before the election, and there is this refusal on the part of portions of this country to move (forward). I was reminded of that listening to him say “the boasts of liberty are an unholy license. The shouting of liberty is hollow.” Those words could not be more timely when you think about the hypocrisy we’re witnessing at this moment.
LW: Something that I think is shared between both “New Labor Movements” and “Lessons of the Hour” is the understanding of nuance and complexity in the transnational Black history. I think Frederick Douglass’ story embodies that complexity in so many ways.
TEM: When I look at Frederick Douglass, that’s the avalanche we come from. It’s so trippy how a person can go from so-called slave to global leader.
“Lessons of the Hour” by Isaac Julien: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Through March 13. Free, reservation required. McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, 1150 25th St., Building B, S.F. 415-580-7605. https://www.mcevoyarts.org/visit/