Video artist Arthur Jafa: “Black people are treated in a certain fashion, the way we respond is superhuman”
June 15, 2017
You’ve seen and heard the vision of Arthur Jafa, even if you haven’t heard of him. The artist and cinematographer has collaborated with some of the biggest artists in the world, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and has been a huge influence over even more. As a cinematopher, Jafa worked with Stanley Kubrick on his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, with Spike Lee on Crooklyn, with his ex-wife Julie Dash on her 1992 film Daughters of the Dust, which Beyoncé used for inspiration for her visual album Lemonade (and which was just made available on Netflix!), and with Solange on her videos for “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky”.
His major foray into the art world happened last year with Love is the Message, the Message is Death, a seven-minute film splicing footage of the police shooting of Walter Scott, civil rights era demonstrations, Beyoncé dancing, Malcolm X and everyday images of Black joy and sorrow over the equally emotionally dynamic Kanye track “Ultralight Beam”. The montage seemed to ask, what is Black joy if not celebrating life amidst constant death? And what does that mean for Black people who seek it?
It’s prompting questions like these that make Jafa’s work so compelling. By being radically unconcerned with the white gaze, Jafa can touch on topics in a way that many other Black artists never can. “I hope I’m being as radical as I can about people’s assumptions about what black people are,” he told The Guardian. “I’m also not speaking to white people. I mean, that’s a core secret of everything I do; I never speak to white people, I always speak to black people.”
Promoting his first UK solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery titled A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, Jafa spoke at length about what this kind of radical work can do for and with Black people. “(It’s) obviously about how magnificent black people are, you know?” He explained. “We are treated in a certain fashion and we respond in a certain fashion. And I think the way we respond is superhuman.”
Banner photo via Donato Sardella/Getty