HARTFORD, Conn. — A new exhibition exploring the reflections of Frederick Douglass on image-making, race and citizenship has opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Amistad Center for Art & Culture. Co-curated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, the exhibition brings together rare 19th-century daguerreotypes — on public view for the first time — with an immersive film work by contemporary artist Sir Isaac Julien that meditates on Douglass’ life and times. I Am Seen…Therefore, I Am: Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass is on view through September 24.
The exhibition was conceived to mark the 180th anniversary of Douglass’ first visit to Hartford in May 1843. When Douglass stood outdoors on Hartford’s Main Street on the grounds of Center Church to speak out for the end of slavery, he would have seen the Wadsworth Atheneum, founded in 1842, under construction directly across the road. Douglass in 1861 would call his era an “Age of Pictures” and considered the capacity to make and enjoy pictures one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings.
When the Wadsworth Atheneum opened its doors in 1844, it contained the very first public gallery for the enjoyment of pictures in the United States. This collaborative exhibition, between the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Amistad Center for Art & Culture, reflects on the profound impact of Douglass to the cause of freedom and the importance of pictures and picture-making to our nation.
Throughout his impressively productive and extraordinarily successful career, Douglass — who was born enslaved and died a statesman — anticipated the inevitably fraught relations among race, representation and justice with which we, his heirs, still grapple today. Marking Professor Gates’ first curatorial endeavor, the exhibition is a dialog between the local and the international, between Douglass’ encounters with Hartford, Connecticut, and the continuing national and international reach of his unfinished movement for social justice for African Americans. The exhibition centers upon Douglass’ first anti-slavery speech in Hartford in 1843, and his subsequent speeches in the city: during the Civil War in 1864, in Allyn Hall, on the rights of Black soldiers; and in 1883, during the rollback to Reconstruction, on the life of John Brown.
Sir Isaac Julien’s immersive five-screen film installation Lessons of the Hour anchors the exploration of the visionary abolitionist whose work amplifies his own. An acclaimed London-based Black filmmaker and installation artist, Julien’s works break down the barriers between artistic disciplines to construct powerful visual narratives through multi-screen film installations. Seen in the Northeast for the first time and in its five-screen version, the 25-minute video installation weaves Douglass’ writings with filmed reenactments of his travels and contemporary protest footage, underscoring Douglass’ relevance and resonance today.
Julien’s work is presented alongside the work of pioneering African American photographers of the period, bringing the enduring legacy of Frederick Douglass into clear focus. Among these is prodigious photographer Augustus Washington, one of the few known African American daguerreotypists, who based his practice in Hartford before emigrating to Liberia in 1853. On public view for the first time and drawn from the singular collection of Greg French, a selection of daguerreotypes also pays tribute to the many individuals who patiently sat before the photographic lens, inviting further research into these subjects’ anonymous identities and their still largely unheralded lives.
The enthralling images offer transfixing, thought-provoking reminders that rights in the United States have been secured and retained not only by laws and social customs and norms, but also by how we see and refuse to see “the other.” The exhibition raises important questions that continue to resonate: What is the relationship between visual representation and being seen both in culture and society — the right of citizens to be accorded recognition justly, and their “self-evident” right to representation in a democracy?
“These extraordinarily arresting images, frozen both in and beyond time, bespeak a history of American slavery and race relations that begs to be written,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Alfonse Fletcher university professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. Gates is perhaps most widely known for serving as host of the popular PBS series Finding Your Roots, now in its ninth season.
Visit the website of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and see its dedicated page for I Am Seen…Therefore, I Am: Isaac Julien and Frederick Douglass.