Arthur Jafa for a black cosmology

Arthur Jafa, from the United States, is one of the leading contemporary artists on the world stage. His works, which use video but also other languages, address the theme of originality and the potential of black culture. By rewriting its entire cosmology.

When talking about Arthur Jafa (Tupelo, 1960), one’s memory probably goes to Love is the message, the message is death (2016). The video work, lasting about 7 minutes, had in fact been made available for streaming during two days in the summer of 2020. The initiative in support of the U.S. Black Lives Matters movement, proposed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, had also made a stop in Italy thanks to Palazzo Grassi. And also in Venice, Jafa had been featured in 2019 when he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Art Biennale curated by Ralph Rugoff for his The white album (2019).

Both works mentioned are videos, and this should not be surprising since Jafa’s “first love,” by his own admission, is film. In this field, after all, he took his first steps after undertaking studies in Washington D. C. in architecture and cinematography at Howard University between 1978 and 1982. Jafa’s career, which also in the past had seen collaborations with directors such as Stanley Kubrick(Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) or Spike Lee(Crooklyn, 1994) or artists such as Jay-Z, Solange Knowles and Kanye West, takes off in the art world precisely thanks to Love is the message, the message is death (2016), to which Windows on Art had already dedicated an in-depth study in 2020. The work is a powerful ode to the black American community and makes use, as is the practice for the artist, of material found on the internet and reused alongside scenes of personal life he shot. To the tune of Kanye West’s Ultralight beam, Jafa builds an impactful narrative to show what Federico Giannini has described as the “disagreement between black culture and violence,” that is, the contrast between the misery of discrimination still strongly present in American society and the richness of black culture, which is widely recognized (F. Giannini, “Love is the message, the message is death,” Arthur Jafa’s masterpiece describes reality, dreams and culture of the black community, “Windows on Art,” 5/07/2020).

Arthur Jafa. Foto Fondazione La Biennale
Arthur Jafa. Photo La Biennale Foundation
Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death (2016; fotogramma dal video, colori e bianco e nero, durata 7’30’’)
Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death (2016; frame from video, color and black and white, duration 730)
Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death (2016; fotogramma dal video, colori e bianco e nero, durata 7’30’’)
Arthur Jafa, Love is the message, the message is death (2016; frame from video, color and black and white, duration 730)
Veduta della mostra Magnumb
Magnumbexhibition view
Veduta della mostra Magnumb
Magnumbexhibition view

The recently concluded Magnumb exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, insists from the wordplay that makes up its title on this oxymoronic pair and offers a chance to engage with the most extensive survey of Jafa’s research ever seen. Past works are juxtaposed with more recent and unpublished works, allowing us to follow the different techniques (from photography to video to sculpture) employed by the artist and to get to know, from the very beginning, the creative process that guides Jafa’s production. His artistic practice is, in some respects, the result of an attitude developed at an early age. Even as a boy, the artist cut out images from magazines and newspapers that he was attracted or disturbed by, going on to build up a stock of ready-made materials. With the advent of technology, this boundless archive of visual references became digital but retained constant characteristics. Despite the randomness of Jafa’s ongoing research, material is from the outset juxtaposed according to clear but not predetermined or constant principles. Sometimes Jafa orders his collections of images by chromatic criteria, at other times on a thematic basis and refers to them as film projects in the making, waiting for them to find their own fulfillment, in ever-changing juxtapositions of meaning enhanced by a skillful use of sound and music. Selecting from these physical or digital albums, Jafa composes part of his works. Consider The White Album (2019), a video work whose title refers to the archive collected by the artist to chronicle the violence perpetrated by white people on the black community and thus trigger a reflection on what it means within society to be black or white, regardless of skin color.

A fine reading of Jafa’s work was given, just on the occasion of his last solo exhibition in Denmark, by Mathias Ussing Seeberg, curator of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Using interviews and lectures given by the artist, referring to texts he wrote, and also highlighting lesser-known works, Seeberg traces a path by key words within Jafa’s work. It is impossible not to link some recurring aspects: the already mentioned co-presence of scenes of extreme beauty and vividness and disturbing and horrific moments, the presence of natural elements of extraordinary power, a reflection that starts from the black body, on which centuries of colonial history have left indelible traces (Mathias Ussing Seeberg, Beauty through horror. An Introduction to the work of Arthur Jafa in Magnumb, exhibition catalog, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, May 21, 2021-October 31, 2021, pp. 22-37).

Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018; fotogramma dal video, colori, durata 40’00’’)
Arthur Jafa, The White Album (2018; frame from video, color, duration 4000)
Arthur Jafa, Dreams are colder than death (2013; fotogramma dal video, colori, durata 52’57’’)
Arthur Jafa, Dreams are colder than death (2013; frame from video, colors, duration 5257)
Arthur Jafa, Aghdra (2021; fotogramma dal video, colori)
Arthur Jafa, Aghdra (2021; frame from video, colors)
Arthur Jafa, LeRage (2017; stampa a colori su Dibond; 212 x 195,89 x 51,11 cm; Miami, ICA)
Arthur Jafa, LeRage (2017; color print on Dibond; 212 x 195.89 x 51.11 cm; Miami, ICA)
Arthur Jafa, Monster (1988; stampa alla gelatina d'argento, 23 x 18,2 cm; New York, MoMA)
Arthur Jafa, Monster (1988; silver gelatin print, 23 x 18.2 cm; New York, MoMA)
Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel III (2018; pneumatico, catene, cerchio, coprimozzo e tessuto di cotone, 231,14 x 231,14 x 93,98 cm; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery)
Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel III (2018; tire, chains, rim, hubcap, and cotton fabric, 231.14 x 231.14 x 93.98 cm; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery)
Arthur Jafa, Black Flag (2017)
Arthur Jafa, Black Flag (2017).

The water element appears persistently in Jafa’s works from Dreams are colder than death (2013) to Aghdra (2020). The symbolism of water, in these video works, is all in relation to the painful experience of slavery, of the disconnect that the ocean marks between African American descendants and their countries of origin. In the first work, some boys are extracted from a swimming pool by means of reverse slow motion that reverses the order of actions. One by one they are brought back to dry land, rescued from the miniature ocean that for their ancestors had meant not only separation from the motherland, but in many cases death. Even in Aghdra, made especially digitally through the use of CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) for the Danish exhibition, we are in the presence of a black wave, hypnotic and mysterious. As the sun is rising on the horizon, coloring the sky red, some dark material, as if it were lava or clods of earth, is carried by the waves, signifying the propagating force of black culture. That same force that Jafa alludes to with the images of the glowing sun in Love is the message and discusses in My black death, published in 2015 by Publication Studio Hudson in its On the Blackness of Blacknuss series. In the short text, the artist traces the impact first African art and then jazz music had on Western culture. A recognition of value aimed certainly atblack aesthetics but which seems not to concern the community that produced it. Precisely on this aspect, provoking and illuminating the issue, Jafa also works on the theme of the black body. In chronological order, it is possible to follow his investigation from the sculpture Ex slave Gordon (2017), a three-dimensional translation of an iconic 1863 photograph depicting a slave’s back disfigured by whippings, to LeRage (2017), a large black silhouette of the Marvel character Hulk, or Monster II (2018), a photographic self-portrait with amonstrous expression, in which the artist underscores, not without irony, the association too often made by the media between people of color and violence. Even the giant tires, used in the industrial field, in the series of Big Wheels(2018) intend to mimic the black body that. in colonial times, was considered and treated as a working machine. Again in the photographic work MJ (2018) Jafa emphasizes the representation of black physicality, using the initials of pop icon Michael Jackson in the title and showing a white body with black genitalia. While the explicit reference is to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist shows through photographic metaphor the ability, or sometimes the necessity, of black people to adapt to the context, “mutating skin,” in order to be accepted in society.

Jafa’s work, declined as we have seen around a major theme, addressed through various art forms, is itself a wave, such as When the levee breaks (2020), where Mickey Mouse riding an Alien, moves in the same direction as the black ocean, during a total eclipse that darkens the sky. It is impossible not to be overwhelmed, even where the artist primarily addresses the black community, in a world where the point of view adopted is always that of the white man. Incorporating current events, historical, musical, visual, cinematic and artistic references, Jafa waves his Black Flag (2017), a reimagining of the disputed Confederate flag, and reverses perspective, beginning to write a new black cosmology.