Yes, the work that catapulted Arthur Jafa to art world fame, 2016’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death, is a powerful compilation of found footage of black joy and pain set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.”
And yes, The White Album, commissioned by and currently playing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, is also made up of found footage (this time, searing examples of whiteness in its most willfully oblivious, offensive and destructive moments).
But these are only recent examples of a filmmaking career—and now, a fine art career—that defies easy categorization, especially when it comes to genre and form. Jafa is comfortable in such a hard-to-pin-down space, even if the art critics of the world, determined to define him by his found-footage pieces, are not.
In a phone interview, I ask Jafa about the phrase “black visual intonation,” words used to describe his work in a number of reviews, exhibition texts and interviews since 2016. “No. I never said that,” he quickly replies. “I’ve said that’s one of the concepts that I’ve been working on. A few people have articulated—have appropriated—this very specific technical ambition of mine as in some way being a meta state of my overall practice.”
It’s like syncopation, he says, a technique within music rather than the whole summation of a composition. If someone could fashion an overarching description of his work, which includes binders of clipped images, large-scale sculpture, art videos and feature-length films, he wouldn’t resist that. But there’s been a rush to define his work over the past two-and-a-half years, and as Jafa says, “It’s been a lot.”
“People are trying to get a handle on what it is. Which I think ought to be difficult because I don’t know myself,” he jokes. “I’m really good about talking about my process and what my aesthetic ambitions are, but as far as a specific work is about X, Y, Z—I’m not so sure I’m the best person to talk to.”
Jafa, who lives in Los Angeles, will have a chance to talk about his process and aesthetic ambitions (and not X, Y, and Z) on Feb. 27, when he appears at BAMPFA in conversation with UC Berkeley profession Leigh Raiford to screen the sold-out Dreams are Colder than Death. His 2013 quasi-documentary features filmmakers, activists and intellectuals reflecting on the aftermath of the civil rights movement—or as Jafa calls it, the movement’s “afterlife.”
The following day, Feb. 28, Jafa steps onstage again, this time with writer and musician Greg Tate. The two will discuss a program titled “Affective Proximity,” which mingles works by Jafa with pieces he selected as precedents or parallels to his own interest in depicting black visual culture.
“I just chose things I thought were dope,” he says by way of curatorial explanation. The program includes a 1991 piece by Dawn Suggs and a 1979 film by Ben Caldwell, both dealing with the personal or familial legacy of violence.
“There were a couple instances where things had kind of been out of circulation. So hopefully this will help them return to circulation as I think they’re very interesting works,” Jafa says. The Feb. 28 program, in keeping with Jafa’s propensity to mingle “high” and “low,” rounds out with a few YouTube clips.
“There’s always stuff bubbling up on the internet and I think it’s fascinating,” he says, “You know, I just saw the other day a clip of a 17- or 18-year-old Mike Tyson working out and it’s kind of mesmerizing—and scary! Hitting the pads like a lunatic.”
Even though Jafa identifies the internet as a source for intriguing material—and an interesting technological loop of both “feed and feeder”—he says the impulse to stockpile footage has been in him long before internet video came on the scene. “I always collected Betamax tapes, VHS tapes,” he says. “I mean, I spent an inordinate amount of time recording things off of television and cable.”
But again, he doesn’t want to be "the found footage guy," and for good reason. His work on Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s 1991 film, was groundbreaking enough to be cited as a direct influence on Beyoncé's epic album-length film Lemonade. He worked alongside Spike Lee on Crooklyn. And in 2016, he served as cinematographer on two videos by Beyoncé's sister, the singer Solange. He even hints at a feature film project that he has in the works, fingers crossed.
“I’m not sure a film is just one thing, but I want to make clear somewhat the intentionality around what I’m doing," he adds.
“People feel like it was fluke a little bit,” he says of his rapid path from filmmaker and cinematographer to artist with gallery representation, international exhibitions and work in museum collections. And to a certain extent that’s true: He never anticipated the response Love is the Message and APEX (a 2013 video of rapid-fire found images) garnered.
“But they are both the product of having thought and exercised my ability or capacity to structure those images in a certain kind of way,” he says. “Because it comes in the guise of found footage, people take to be a little more off-the-cuff than what it is.”
APEX, in particular, reads like a Rorschach test. The only identifiable images are those you’re already familiar with, aspects of your own visual culture. Other stills blink past without recognition, leaving, at the end of an exhausting nine minutes, an overwhelming sense of how much wasn’t absorbed.
It creates the affective emotional force Jafa strives to attain, the easy packaging and processing of which he remains wary.
With Love is the Message, the uncritical responses Jafa kept hearing from audiences—particularly white audiences—made him queasy. “Some people told me, ‘I cried when I saw it,’” he says. “One of the things I wanted to achieve was to move people, but then to what end?”
This reaction, and Jafa’s openness about it (it’s not the first time he’s expressed this disappointment in an interview) is rare in the world of fine art, where finished works emerge from artists’ studios and remain unchanged henceforth.
It makes sense, then, that The White Album is intended to grow and change over time. This summer, when it will be included in the Venice Biennale, it will be 20 or 30 minutes longer, Jafa says, than the current BAMPFA incarnation.
Ignoring the time-honored “way things are usually done” is a Jafa specialty. And being confident in his ability to create art is a product of working so long to develop his particular approaches to structure and image. (It doesn't hurt either, he says, to be older, have a great gallery and make more money.)
And he says, “There’s a lot more brothers and sisters up in this thing now—and a lot more women now too. So it’s just a little more pleasant to be around, frankly, not as alienating. I know it’s easier on my soul.”
Arthur Jafa will be present for the sold-out screening of 'Dreams are Colder than Death,' on Feb. 27 and 'Affective Proximity: Films by Arthur Jafa and Others' at 7pm on Feb. 28, both at BAMPFA in Berkeley. Details here.
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