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. Through his video montages, collages and installations recognised for their visceral emotion, Jafa challenges and questions the meaning of and assumptions about Blackness.
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. In 2014, he 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. 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), adding a personal touch, 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 intersect in the exhibition A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions to address the intimacy between life and death that African Americans experience in the US. Co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad for Serpentine Galleries in London in 2017, the exhibition travelled to the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin in 2018. 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. The centrepiece of the exhibition, 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 in the exhibition, 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. Meanwhile, the Black man, who stands adjacent to the minstrel, point his finger out towards the gallery at the opposite wall where the artist's self-portrait hangs. In Monster (1988), Jafa brings the camera to his own face, directing the gaze back to the viewer or, inside the exhibition space, back to Mickey Mouse in a refusal to remain a passive body.
Jafa has held solo exhibitions across the world, notably at Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York (2018, 2016); Serpentine Galleries, London (2017); and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2017). Selected group exhibitions include 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). The artist lives and works in Los Angeles.
Arthur Jafa is a brilliant filmmaker, cinematographer and artist, whose practice is concerned with identifying and developing a specifically Black visual aesthetic. His work tackles the complexity of African-American cultural identity, as defined by an existential paradox that places the Black subject 'in essential intimacy with death', as Saidiya...