The American artist Arthur Jafa (b. 1960) is widely considered one of the most important artists working today. Over a long career, he has moved in and out of the worlds of film, music and art without ever making a permanent home in one. All of his work deals with the great and original creative power of Black American culture, as opposed to the harsh reality of Black American life.
Arthur Jafa born in Tupelo, Mississippi, first gained worldwide attention in 2016 with his video work Love is the Message, the Message is Death.
Running roughly eight minutes, the work is a virtuosic cut of viral videos and historical footage of American notables like Barack Obama, Serena Williams and Martin Luther King alongside news clips and handheld footage of police brutality against Black Americans, scored to the Kanye West song Ultralight Beam.
Deeply touching and scathing, Jafa’s work highlights the discrepancy between the fame and status of Black stars and the treatment of the African-American population in general.
Since childhood, Jafa has cultivated an obsession with cutting different pictures out of books and magazines and pasting them into new constellations in his own picture books. This still remains the starting point for his work today.
Jafa presents us with a volume of ready-made material combined to create new meaning in films, photographs and installations. Much of his material is sourced from popular culture, news footage and home videos online. The artist’s favourite resource is YouTube.
Film and music videos
Starting out as a cinematographer, Jafa has worked with directors such as Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick.
Back in 1991 at the Sundance Film Festival, he won the award for best cinematography, for his work on the Julie Dash-directed film Daughters of the Dust.
In recent years, Jafa has made music videos in collaboration with a number of distinctive American musical artists, including Jay-Z, Solange Knowles and, in 2020, Kanye West, for his song Wash Us in the Blood.
Last year, Jafa won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, cementing his position in the global art world. The standout work at Venice was his video The White Album, which was shown in the exhibition.
The exhibition was the biggest presentation of Arthur Jafa’s art to date and featured his key filmic works, including a new video work made specifically for this exhibition, alongside a large number of works in other media, several of which were also made for the occasion.
The exhibition entitled Magnumb, which is a compostion of the two words magnum and numb, was presented in the South Wing.
For Louisiana, Jafa’s work is an obvious continuation of the American tradition of Pop art, with its fascination with pop culture and social criticism. Pop art is a cornerstone of the museum’s collection, with names like Warhol, Rauschenberg, Fahlström and Kogelnik.
Interview with the artist
In this extensive interview, Jafa talks about black identity in connection with his critically acclaimed video Love is the Message, The Message is Death, which became a worldwide sensation.