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Immersive exhibit brings the words and images of Frederick Douglass to life

Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass, a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour—Frederick Douglass, a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was known for his captivating physical presence and compelling public speaking. He was the most photographed person of the 19th century.

Now an immersive exhibitat the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts uses actors, screens and sounds to bring his presence to the 21st century.

“What to the American slave is your fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in one of his most famous speeches. “The day that reveals to him more than all the other days in the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

It’s a text you may have read or even heard before. But never quite like this. Ten floating screens, and a shifting composition of images and sounds.

On some of the screens an actor portraying Douglass delivers the famous speech. But on others plays FBI drone footage of riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Those images are juxtaposed with film of fireworks exploding over the same city.

That’s just a snapshot of the approximately half hour presentation that curator Valerie Cassel Oliver calls a beautifully choreographed feast for the eyes.

“It’s really quite a beautiful, beautiful work of art,” Cassel said at a media preview this week. “And it also brings us to understanding how prophetic Frederick Douglass’ words were in terms of understanding that if the ideas and the policies around enslavement did not change that we would be dealing with the residuals of that in contemporary times.”

The installation, by Afro-British filmmaker Isaac Julien, opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts December 10th and runs into July.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.