Art in the Age of an Awakening: Assessing an Artwork by Arthur Jafa
By Shantay Robinson
Arthur Jafa is a celebrated video artist who reflects, in his work, “the power, beauty, and alienation” found in Black music. His focus on emanating the power of Black music through video art is a sizable undertaking given Black music is the foundation for so many other derivative forms, from modern day rock to pop. Simultaneously, Black music leads our contemporary musical charge with its innovations; to follow its trajectory into video art requires significant skill and vision.
Jafa accomplishes what he sets out to do. His video artwork, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, depicts the fullness of Black existence in the United States. Without relying on tropes or stereotypes, his work imagines Black people unhindered by the white gaze. These images portray Black life, joyous, proud, afraid, and angry. The dichotomy of American existence between white and “other” requires we show up as only our best selves in white spaces while the rest of who we are is problematized. Through Love is the Message, the Message is Death, Jafa exposes to the world that, behind closed doors and outside of the white gaze, Black people are also human, in all their glory and all their pain.
Amidst our country’s ongoing attempt to reconcile the physical and emotional traumas of COVID-19, social justice protests, and police violence, Jafa streamed his seven-and-a-half-minute work of art through the websites of art institutions around the world for 48 hours. These institutions included the Dallas Museum of Art, the Glenstone Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Tate, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Palazzon Grassi, the Punta della Dogana, the Julie Stoschek Collection, and Luma Arles and Luma Westbau. The Hirshorn Museum, along with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who led the charge with Jafa, previously acquired the work in 2018. Love is the Message, the Message is Death was met with an ideal opportunity for these museums, some of which own the artwork, to optimize their reach given so many consumers were online at home. Ours is a time when the internet regularly shows us what injustice looks like. Ours is a moment when we are awakening to the social justice issues this country faces. And Jafa’s work speaks to our collective concerns in a way that gives credence and vivid imagery to our grievances.
Love is the Message, The Message is Death displays the multifaceted richness of Black life and culture. The video is a deliberately paced work made up of found and original images, many from amateur filmmakers capturing the everyday. But what is most noticeable about these everyday clips is the provocative portrayal of Black life. Though brief, their impact is long-lasting. We watch a man getting shot in the back while running away from a police officer. We witness a young woman in a bathing suit getting slammed to the ground by a police officer. These are not images we can unsee. While we have seen them before in our social media timelines, they are even more impactful in Jafa’s work. These everyday videos of lives being lost and violated, made by members of the Black community, are often posted to the internet with hopes they will serve as some evidence of brutality and violence. Judicially, they seldom do. Instead, they incite momentary outrage and popular demands for justice before the world resumes its normal activity.
Jafa’s work, shown in the predominantly white space of museum galleries, affords the Black experience substantial reach. This compelling depiction of Black life is not commonly known outside of Black spaces. His work is a window into Black souls.
The Black images we typically see in popular culture are often the same. There’s the slave, the thug, and the athlete. There’s the jezebel, the mammie, and the angry Black woman. As Black people demand more holistic representation in media and accumulate more agency to make the depictions of Black lives more just, still, only a few spaces offer the diversity inherent in Black existence. The media and educational systems love to depict Black people from the civil rights era clad in fine clothes, marching piously. They show them enduring attacks by dogs and assaults with fire hoses. They teach us that strong Black people persisted through the physical, emotional, and mental violence inflicted on them. Commemorating these brave men and women who fought for civil rights is a valid form of respect and appreciation. They inform us that struggle is necessary, that we should be strong, fight, and endure the physical and psychic trauma inflicted upon us. While these images show us what Black people went through, they cannot be the only images we have to live by given their heinous and unnecessary nature, and how they speak at least as much to the character of those inflicting the trauma. Though the images of suited up Black men and women respectably fashioned stir pride in Black people, they are not the only images of us. There are so many kinds of us.
Jafa’s artwork has many levels. On the most basic level, this is a tapestry of Black life. With this work, Jafa allows Black people to breathe. He allows us to be in our own skin. These found videos give us a window into worlds and activities we might have never seen. We see people partying, getting married, singing in church choirs, living their lives. While a mother with two small children in the car gets pulled over and harassed by police officers, a Black couple jumps the broom. The dimensions embedded in this video provide rhetorical prowess that speaks to the existential quality of Black life. Its argument persuades the viewer that Black existence is dynamic. There is not only the thug or the priest. Amazingly, Jafa fills the video with many of the other identities that make up Black life. While he shows us the travesties, Jafa depicts the triumphs as well. We see Muhammad Ali dodging blows before knocking out his contender. We see Serena Williams winning a match and then Crip Walking. We see Lauryn Hill and Aretha Franklin’s hauntingly stern glares that tell of their knowledge of the Black situation. These women who sing about love stare down the menacing with sharp gazes. While expressing the tragedy of the everyday, Jafa does not deny our greatness. These are moments to cherish.
Jafa didn’t simply gather clips and lay them over Kanye West’s gospel inspired track, Ultralight Beam, featuring Chance the Rapper. He curated, in the highest sense of the word, representations of Black life—the good and the bad—and created a tapestry provoking a recognition that cannot deny the humanity of Black life. Though the music track is slow and deliberate, the editing is quick, relying on its heavy yet sharp bass line and high notes. The combination of the music and video is exquisitely crafted as he lets the track rest to insert voices from quotidian clips. Jafa is inspired by the Black musical tradition, his visual portrayal married to the tempos of jazz, hip hop, and gospel, the syncopation and improvisation of African American musical genres. Lyrics from “This is a God dream” remind us this is all God’s creation no matter our stations in life. As the lyrics invoke, “I’m trying to keep my faith,” the visuals in the artwork show us how demanding a goal that can be. The visual experience is mesmerizing, full of moments of pride and sadness.
Love is the Message, the Message is Death was originally exhibited in 2016, but the message still rings true in 2020. In these unprecedented times, though rapid change may be the only constant, some things will remain the same. We can hope the things that change are the ones we are fighting for – social justice, equality, and reform. That remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the viewing of Jafa’s exquisite artistic creation, one witnessed by so many more than if solely exhibited in museums, could contribute to the consciousness raising we need to achieve the changes we hope for.
A graduate of Howard University, Arthur Jafa has worked on numerous film projects including Daughters of the Dust for which he won “Best Cinematography” honors at Sundance in 1991. In 2019, he was awarded the Golden Lion for best artist for his film The White Album at the Venice Biennale. He served as the director of photography on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky.” And he co-founded a motion-picture studio TNEG with fellow cinematographer Malik Sayeed. Most recently, Jafa directed Kanye West’s video “Wash Us in the Blood.”
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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