Time is growing short for Lessons of the Hour. On view through April 24 at McEvoy Arts, a gallery with an increasingly high profile role in the Dogpatch neighborhood, the West Coast premiere of Isaac Julien’s immersive homage to Frederick Douglass offers an all-too-timely plunge into the life of one of America’s most consequential radicals.
A 10-screen film and photo installation, Lessons takes a contemplative, wide-angle look at the extraordinary life of Douglass (1818-1895), the formerly enslaved man, memoirist, statesman, and charismatic spokesman for abolitionism. While the work seems pegged to the debates about race and policing and the legacy of white supremacy that have roiled the nation since the death of George Floyd, Lessons premiered in 2019. The exhibition is free and open to the public by appointment.
Rather than running at a steady boil, the work simmers and chills, weaving together excerpts from Douglass’ speeches, and dramatizations of his private and public life (Ray Fearon portrays Douglass, Sharlene Whyte plays his first wife, abolitionist Anna Murray Douglass, and Joan Iyiola plays their daughter, Rosetta Douglass). Douglass is also evoked through Julien’s tintype portraits and mise-en-scène photographs, while a companion exhibition, When Living is a Protest, generates historical frisson with photographs from the McEvoy Family Collection documenting 20th and 21st century iterations of the struggle for civil rights.
“There are a lot of photos from civil rights era in the collection, images of Martin Luther King and Cassius Clay and works by Lorraine O’Grady,” said Susan Miller, executive director of the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, referring to the pioneering conceptual artist whose work explores Black female subjectivity, diaspora, and hybridity.
Multiplicity seems to be a central concern of Isaac Julien, the British installation artist, filmmaker and professor of the arts at UC Santa Cruz. He conceived of Lessons of the Hour as a vehicle for demonstrating the ongoing relevance of Douglass, “continuing the conversation about technology and control and the legacy of slavery,” Miller said.
While the exhibition opened last October, McEvoy Arts was closed for several months due to the pandemic (which led the gallery to extend the original run by two weeks). Now classified as a museum, the gallery keeps the number of visitors at any given time well below capacity, which allows people plenty of space to wander through the three rooms without worrying about crowding anyone. With 10 large glass screens hung from massive trusses in a space with blood-red carpet and red walls, the experience is enveloping.
“Isaac is a master of cinema, and I’m interested in the way he found to focus in on part of cinema that can be spatial, creating a story about Frederick Douglass that filled space in a way that’s both quiet and full,” said Oakland artist, writer and curator Leila Weefur, who assembled a companion series of short films, New Labor Movements, exploring concepts of transnational Blackness and America today.
“What really stood out about Lessons is all the sound in it,” she continued. “The sound really adds a texture to the narrative. There’s a sonic footprint across each of the 10 screens, a speaker for every screen, so there’s a rhythm to it sound. The sonic textures have a song and voice all their own that’s very oratorical.”
Weefur curated four different New Labor Movements film and video collections in association with Lessons, one of which, Movement III, is on view in gallery’s screening room. It’s a five-piece program that moves from the Darol Olu Kae’s earthy, jazz-steeped “I ran from it and was still in it” to Terrance Day’s numinously charged “Cherish” to Charlotte Brathwaite’s Afro-futuristic New York sojourn “Only When It’s Dark Enough Can You See The Stars.”
“There was a strategy behind the sequence,” Weefur said. “With Movement III, I really wanted people to pay more attention to the internal voice, to the possibility of freedom and liberation, not external and exterior way of becoming. Olu Kae’s is a very interior piece. All of the different filmic fragments and assemblage of images is a way of showing us how freedom can look from an interior experience.”
Run by the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, the Dogpatch gallery opened its doors in the fall of 2017 as a venue for exhibiting works from the extensive McEvoy Family Collection. Founded by Nion McEvoy, the CEO of Chronicle Books and heir to the de Young family fortune, the gallery is looking to make up for lost time when full access to the space is once again possible.
“We’re looking at helping the community come to terms with what we’ve lost and missed,” Miller said. “What does it mean to move into the world again, to sing, dance, and play? We know how important live arts are to our sense of community, and we want to be part of bringing that back.”