Skip to main content

Excavating the Image, Part II: Isaac Julien’s Lessons of the Hour (short-term, April 2022)

Published March 8, 2022

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

Friday, April 8, 9 a.m.—noon; Saturday, April 9, 10 a.m.—3 p.m.

The Kahn Liberal Arts Institute and the Smith College Museum of Art have partnered on the Excavating the Image (Ex/Im) 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.

SCMA is showing the U.S. premiere of the single-screen version of Lessons of the Hour (2019). 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 is inspired by episodes in the life of freedom fighter Frederick Douglass (1818–1895). The film depicts Douglass as one of the most powerful voices and visionaries of the 19th century – from his demands to abolish chattel slavery to his aesthetic theory on photography – and demonstrates how his trenchant analyses continue to resonate.

The acquisition and exhibition of Lessons of the Hour by the SCMA is timely. Smith’s Year on Democracies campus-wide focus in 2021-22 is 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.

This is the second part of a two-part Ex/Im project focusing on relevant material in the collections of SCMA and Special Collections as well as local abolitionist histories. Because we will be spending group time in the SCMA new media gallery, space in the project is limited to 15 fellows. Fellows need not have participated in the previous Ex/Im project on Lessons of the Hour to participate in this one.

Project Fellows are strongly encouraged to attend Julien’s Miller Lecture on April 5, 2022, in advance of the project.

Apply for Excavating the Image II.