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Excavating the Image, Part I: Isaac Julien's Lessons of the Hour (short-term, June 2021)

Published June 2, 2021

A Kahn Institute-Smith College Museum of Art joint project organized by Emma Chubb, Charlotte Feng Ford '83 Curator of Contemporary Art, Smith College Museum of Art, and Alex Keller, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute

Project Description

The Kahn Institute and the Smith College Museum of Art have partnered on the Excavating the Image series, in which scholars gather to consider a work in the museum’s collection from a variety of cross-disciplinary angles, for 10 years. As the museum continues to expand its moving image collection, Ex/Im continues to focus on newly acquired works.

In December 2021, SCMA will open an exhibition of Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour in its New Media Gallery. Julien is one of the most important artists working in time-based media (film and video) today. One of the co-founders (in 1983) of the Sankofa Film and Video Collective, whose mission was to develop and sustain a thriving Black independent film culture in Britain, Sankofa’s reach was global. Julien’s early work with Sankofa, Looking for Langston (1989), reclaimed Langston Hughes in his totality as a Black gay man, as it also revised the category of documentary as a parallel goal, the latter indivisible from the former. Julien has consistently refused to work within one production framework, moving from independent feature (Young Soul Rebels (1991)) to music video (Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour's “Shaking the Tree” (1990)) to documentary (Baadasssss Cinema (2002))  to gallery and museum installations (The Long Road to Mazatlan (1999)). Lessons of the Hour (2019) is a single-channel video installation that dramatizes episodes from the life and writings of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). 

The acquisition of Lessons of the Hour by the SCMA is timely. Smith’s Year on Democracies campus-wide focus in 2021-22 will be powerfully animated by this piece. Julien’s focus on the key women in Douglass’s life, transatlantic exchange, the environment, and the history and theory of photography make this work ideal for courses in many departments.

The first part of this two-part Ex/Im project will focus on discussing the work and different ways in which it might be incorporated into interterm and/or spring 2022 courses and programming. We anticipate the second part will involve a visit from Isaac Julien in 2022.

Project Fellows

  • Chris Aiken, Dance
  • Elizabeth Armstrong, Study of Women and Gender
  • Silvia Berger, Spanish/Jewish Studies
  • Nimisha Bhat, Smith College Libraries
  • Emma Chubb, Smith College Museum of Art (Organizing Fellow)
  • Anaiis Cisco, Film and Media Studies
  • Jennifer DeClue, Study of Women and Gender
  • Dawn Fulton, French Studies
  • Marguerite Itamar Harrison, Spanish and Portuguese
  • Alex Keller, Film and Media Studies, and Director, Kahn Institute (Organizing Fellow)
  • Daphne Lamothe, Africana Studies
  • Dana Leibsohn, Art
  • Richard Millington, English
  • Kathleen Pierce, Art
  • Abraham Ravett, Film/Photo/Video Program, Hampshire College
  • Monique Roelofs, Humanities and Arts, Hampshire College, and Philosophy, University of Amsterdam
  • Britt Rusert, Afro-American Studies, UMass-Amherst
  • Frasier Stables, Art
  • Frazer Ward, Art
  • Michele Wick, Psychology