ArtFilm / TV

arthur jafa teaches us how to center the black gaze

December 17, 2018
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Reversing the white gaze onto itself has always been an aspirational fantasy for the Black creative community. It has mostly been achieved in Black comedy, where there’s been a lot of sketches and stand-up addressing the culture of whiteness from a Black perspective. Dave Chappelle’s work and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” had to be tinged in comedy in order to be entirely consumed as a Black critique of whiteness.

It’s exhilarating to think that Arthur Jafa might be joining this small group with his latest art film project, “The White Album.” It is following on the huge art-world success of his short film, “Love is The Message, The Message is Death”, which served as a sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful, sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic collage of Black existence, mainly to make it clearer to white viewership. “The White Album” seems to disrupt that. Jafa’s desire is to use his Black radical gaze — he served as cinematographer for Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of The Dust” — and knowing Jafa’s genius, the project’s title is more than likely to refer to both the classic The Beatles album and the groundbreaking Joan Didion book. With that in mind, it seems that Jafa will attempt to do in film what Toni Morrison did in literature with the “Playing in the Dark,” a book of literary analysis that challenging the public and the audience to see white culture through the Black gaze.

My takeaway from “Playing in the Dark” was that Black artists rarely produce something that gazes at white culture, but does not either compromise itself for white culture or bring levity to that gaze through comedy, or both. Morrison argues that the works in the literary canon where Black characters might have been flat or non-existent—writings by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe and Ernest Hemingway — still contain enormous Black influence; that the writers battle the moral atrocities of slavery and racial injustice by focusing on hauntings, illicit sexuality, and existential anxiety.

Jafa has been fascinatingly, candidly exploring the artistic and intellectual weight of Morrison’s theory since the beginning of his career, as the visualist who controlled the aesthetic — the literal gaze — of Julie Dash’s womanist classic, “Daughters of The Dust.” In responding to Jafa’s warm (and cited) appropriation of Morrison’s theory in literature for film during a 2014 talk at the New School, the black feminist visionary bell hooks offered Arthur Jafa this idea, “Surveillance is the key to colonization.”

Jafa asserts, “If you point a camera at Black people, on a psychoanalytical level, that camera is also functioning as a white gaze even if a Black person is standing behind the camera.” At the time, he was discussing his project “Dreams Are Colder Than Death”, but this type of transgressive relationship with who is consuming and who is being consumed when creating work runs throughout Jafa’s theory as an artist: he wants to disturb the white gaze, while comforting — even prioritizing — subjects with a deeper connection to struggle and othering.

“The White Album” positions itself as one of the moments that Black art is wrestling with whiteness — not for white people’s entertainment or for laughs, but as an honest investigation in how a people work. Just as whiteness tends to examine and other everything around it for entertainment or “scholarship,” a Black artist has finally dared to seriously intellectually handle the curious case of whiteness. If only for a moment, Jafa’s newest project could possibly challenge a gaze that is both everywhere and never acknowledged. Black performers and artists in film and on television are encouraged to perform a consumable version of Blackness as if nobody’s looking, all the while knowing that wielder of the power of white supremacy always are. Jafa’s latest project could possibly say radical things in art often left unsaid by Black people; quiet but powerful sentiments like “I can see you,” “I can feel you”, “I can hear you”, and “I am here on purpose”.

Hopefully, Arthur Jafa’s “The White Album” can be added to the growing list of works by Black artists that replace the need to perform for the white gaze, with the creation of work for an audience that understands its language — whether in literature, dance, film, photography, or otherwise — reclaiming their power by gazing back at the culture that is always threatening us with surveillance.