Arthur Jafa is an American filmmaker, cinematographer and artist committed to the development of a visual language that propagates Black experience in both aesthetic form and content. His video work for the Venice Biennale in 2019 earned the artist a Golden Lion award.Read More
Now based in Los Angeles, Arthur Jafa was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1960.
As a student of architecture at Howard University, Washington, DC, Jafa was drawn to the idea of building a Black architecture—one that would represent the African American experience the way Black music had long operated in the US.
He later found this visual aesthetic in cinema; Jafa recognised the possibility of imbuing film with what he calls 'Black visual intonation' in 1991 while working as the cinematographer for Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. He earned the Excellence in Cinematography Award for this highly acclaimed film at the Sundance Film Festival.
By the mid-2010s, Jafa had established himself as a filmmaker and cinematographer, having worked with Ava DuVernay (Selma, 2014), Nefertite Nguvu (In The Morning, 2014), Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) and Spike Lee (Crooklyn, 1994) among others.
Through his video montages, collages and installations recognised for their visceral emotion, Jafa challenges and questions the meaning of and assumptions about Blackness.
In 2014, Arthur Jafa collaborated with filmmaker Kahlil Joseph to produce Dreams Are Colder Than Death, a short, experimental documentary that reflects upon the legacy of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech. Weaving together slow-motion images of ordinary Black people with those of water and deep space, and featuring prominent figures of contemporary Black studies and arts such as Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten and Kara Walker, the film contemplated the ontology of Blackness in today's world.
It was also during this year that Jafa co-founded TNEG—a motion picture studio that supports Black independent film—with curator Elissa Blount Moorhead and filmmaker Malik Sayeed.
In November 2016, Jafa debuted his iconic Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death at Gavin Brown's enterprise in New York. The seven-minute movie exemplifies his exploration of Black visual intonation and montage by collaging a multitude of images sourced from the news, television and the internet. The work includes footage of Black icons, from Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson to former president Barack Obama; phone videos of ordinary African Americans, most anonymous, at gatherings with family and friends or in the midst of racially provoked police violence; coverage of athletic events; as well as excerpts from Jafa's own work, Dreams are Colder than Death (2012), while Kanye West's 'Ultralight Beam' plays in the background.
On the one hand, Love Is The Message is a celebration of Black culture, with the hundreds of anonymous bodies in the video defying a monolithic definition of Blackness and serving as a reminder of complex and singular individuals who constitute Black identity. On the other hand, the video montage also reveals the conditions of racial discrimination under which African Americans live in the US, some of which are overlooked or systematically imposed by the state.
Jafa's earlier and new works intersected in the 2017 Serpentine Galleries exhibition A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions to address the intimacy between life and death that African Americans experience in the US.
In addition to his audio-visual montages and collages, Jafa also invited photographer Ming Smith, artist Frida Orupabo and YouTuber Missylanyus to show their works in the exhibition which was co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad for Serpentine Galleries in London in 2017. The exhibition centrepiece, Mix1-4_constantly evolving (2017), consists of four video collages that intersperse both personal and found footage: the artist playing with his children; excerpts from old documentaries; concert clips of Jimi Hendrix performing guitar solos and more. Elsewhere, Jafa's collages juxtaposed historical and contemporary images of complex African American experience.
Mickey Mouse was a Scorpio (2016) places the famed Walt Disney character next to the photograph of a contemporary minstrel who has painted a white skeleton over his blackface. Drawing on the history of Mickey Mouse as a racist icon, Jafa comments on the relentless appropriation of Afro-American culture by its mainstream white counterpart. In Monster (1988), Jafa brings the camera to his own face, directing the gaze back to the viewer. Inside the exhibition space, he defiantly stares back at Micky Mouse.
Exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2019, Arthur Jafa's Golden Lion-winning video work The White Album (2018), reflects upon whiteness and white visual culture. It pools together a cast of the privileged to explore themes of white supremacy and white privilege in present-day America.
Arthur Jafa's work has been the subject of group and solo exhibitions in galleries and institutions around the world.
The artist's solo exhibitions include: Magnumb, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebæk, Denmark (2021); The White Album, Berkeley Art Museum, Berkeley (2018); Love is The Message, The Message is Death, Museum of Contemporary Art, MoCA, Los Angeles (2017); A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, Serpentine Gallery, London (2017).
His group exhibitions include: Surrounds, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2019); The Message, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC (2017); Made in LA 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); Ruffneck Constructivists, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia (2014); Bitstreams, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2001); and Dexter Buell, Arthur Jafa, Judy Stevens, Artists Space, New York (1999).
Ocula | 2022