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  • Writer's pictureNaya Clark

Arthur Jafa Uses Video Collaging to Convey the Black Experience

Updated: May 1, 2023

Among Atlanta's High Museum of Art's most diverse audience in history, Jafa compiles video documentation of the complexity of Blackness

A few months ago, a friend and I took a walk to a museum. It had been a while since we've spent time together, and have been artistically stimulated. We figured the experience would be like any trip to the museum–visually and culturally enlightening. Little did we know we'd leave an exhibit in tears mixed with emotions of solidarity, happiness, nostalgia, and bit of sadness.

Our level of comfort with museum spaces, often times unbeknownst to us, is a feat and privilege in itself. Until recently, The art museums and gallery world were predominantly White spaces, both in subject matter and the artists that were featured. Although still a predominantly White driven industry, there is a lot of progress being made in how Black people and People of Color are represented in the Art Museum setting . According to a 2016-2017 study by CUNY’s Guttman College research, 80.5 percent of artists represented by the galleries are White. That number jumps up to a whopping 88.1 percent if the numbers are filtered for U.S. artists.

The High Museum of Art has been taking many efforts to include art by African American artists in order to represent, which is necessary in Atlanta, a city that has been labeled the "Black Mecca" of the American South. One of the visuals at the High that caught my eye was a video compilation by Arthur Jafa, entitled Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death. The compilation is a collection of viral, historical, and well-recognized videos featuring predominantly Black people; from the inauguration of Barack Obama, women and girls twerking, Black people being shot by the police, and more highlighting the pains and victories of Black people as a whole, in both in times of wealth, poverty, dignity, and action deemed as "ghetto" behavior that are expressions of Black joy, in addition to more "respectable" moments that are considered achievements within Black culture. Within every few videos was the a zoom-in of the sun from outer space, serving as a symbolic reminder of the origin of life and Blackness as a whole.

According to the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston,"It comprises original and found footage from concerts, marches, music videos, news reports, police cameras, YouTube videos, as well as scenes from his well-known 2014 documentary Dreams are Colder than Death, which lyrically reflects on Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and contemporary black experiences, collaging and interspersing clips of figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, James Brown, Beyoncé, and Freddie Gray, as well as hip-hop performances, sports games with predominantly black athletes, and violent police arrests of black men and women....[the video] glimpses of the joys and traumas of black life—nuanced, complex, and multifaceted—in the United States, which the artist sees as both beautiful and painfully fraught."

Jafa was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1960, as Arthur Jafa Fielder. He paired images clipped from magazines, pictures he liked, organized and compiled images else he liked into three-ring binders, which he calls “the books". Similarly, now he compiles videos. According to an interview with ArtNews, "Jafa wanted to give Black film the same agency that Black music had developed through its cultural cachet: black visual intonation would be film’s way of communicating blackness in the same way that music did." As opposed to the video being compiled or created during one set moment, the video is a series of iconic and niche videos that fall into the category of "unapologetically Black", and paired with Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam", a song that's lyrics and accompanying choir give extra emotion and Black context to the videos and images in the video compilation. The compilation mainly exists within the cultural context of Blackness. Because Jafa collected an array impactful videos, the visual cues within the videos ranged from color, cultural context, and movement of the human body, which implied time, and perspective.

Within the video, there were clips of images that fell into symbolic, indexical, and iconic characteristics. Clips such as Obama's inauguration which has become an iconic scene. The indexical image of Edward Crawford, clutching a bag of chips in one hand as he cocks his arm back to throw a burning tear gas canister that riot police had fired to disperse protesters. Jafa uses the images in stereotypes in Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, to both illuminate and dispel stereotypes, using videos that were previously either viral or deemed as "ratchet" as cultural moments to be respected. Although not blatant, Jafa's Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death is a form of persuasive technique. By informing and collecting undoubtedly Black moments, it has the potential to move those to further appreciate Black culture in America, in a way one may not have had in a way prior.

Similarly, Jafa's pasts works and visual direction in Daughters of the Dust, Crooklyn, and Happy Birthday Marsha have been directed in Jafa's incapsulating, signature format which speaks the beauty of Black life and quiets the soul to listen to it.

Finally, Jafa's Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death evokes an emotion, and is viscerally powerful. I turned my head when I saw my fellow brothers and sisters within the video threatened by police, mourned states of poverty, rejoiced at iconic videos of Black achievement, excellence, and joy, and left with a swelling sense of pride, and comfort that, in the words of Kendrick Lamar, "WE GON' BE ALRIGHT".

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