Arthur Jafa in Serralves
With his first exhibition in Portugal, the renowned artist, filmmaker and photography director Arthur Jafa, winner of the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, uses the exhibition space of the Serralves Museum to ask us: what do we know about black culture?
Divided into two parts, the exhibition A series of utterly improbable, yet extraordinary renditions premiered at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, in 2017. Part of the artist’s most mature work, the exhibition brings together works developed over three decades, including films – his most traditional means of expression, sculptures and photographs. It addresses the main element in the artist’s life: the questioning of cultural assumptions, related to identity and race.
When we enter the exhibition, we are invited to use headphones with different audio channels, which must be changed according to the signage of each film shown on the four screens. We immediately feel the impact of a video montage showing jazz stars, footage of police brutality, the objectification of bodies, sets of images and materials from Missylanyus on YouTube, which puts us between admiration and segregation of African-American culture.
On the walls, sets of images taken from the Internet contrast with historical photographs enlarged to cover parts of the rooms, from ceiling to floor. As we look at the panel, we find an avalanche of “selective randomness”, from Rihanna to microscopic enlargements, from Mickey Mouse to science fiction, scenes of violence, historical images, black culture icon. Subtly, Jafa shows us that, by focusing on that panel and that set of icons and symbols, we turn our backs – literally – on the historical images that have shaped the prejudiced behaviours we have until today.
In addition to other photographs, images and sculptures by Jafa, guests Ming Smith (photographer) and Frida Orupabo (visual artist) also contribute to political reflection and questioning about the history of African-American visual aesthetics.
But who is Arthur Jafa and why is his artistic work so associated with racial issues?
As an African-American, and having been born in 1960 in Mississippi, United States, Jafa, still as a child, understood segregation in the first person: his primary school class was one of the first to mix black and white children. At the age of 12, he began a collection of binders with collages of images cut out of magazines, which became one of the works in the exhibition, the series The Books.
Other major factors that influenced his artistic work were his passion for science fiction television shows, his background in architecture and film at Howard University, and his great interest in jazz music, especially Miles Davis.
Arthur Jafa has exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (2018), the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles (2017), the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (2001), the Media City in Seoul (2000), the CCAC Institute in Oakland (2000) and Artists Space in New York (1999), among others.
As part of his career in cinema, he was director of photography in the film Daughters of the Dust (1991) directed by Julie Dash, who won the Excellence in Cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival; he worked with Spike Lee in Crooklyn (1994) and with Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Also, the artist has made a documentary called Dreams are Colder than Death (2013), exploring the meaning of being black today in the United States; and the impacting film Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), which is part of the exhibition at the Serralves Museum.
This one, which is shown at the Casa de Cinema Manoel Oliveira, lasts seven minutes and is a set of photographic, film and video images assembled to – like the rest of the exhibition – question contemporary black culture in the United States. We see scenes of police reports, celebrities, anonymous, historical feats, archive footage, parts of films, to the sound of Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam. In a powerful way of closing the exhibition, Arthur Jafa manages to make us feel partially responsible for what we watch. We leave the exhibition with a feeling of guilt for not being the questioners of what we see daily, for turning our back on what is considered a distant past. Provocatively and brilliantly, the artist shows us that what we know about black culture is what we have been told, shown and told by white interlocutors.
Part of Love is the Message, the Message is Death may be seen bellow.
The exhibition at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea Serralves, in Oporto, was supposed to end on 21 June, but is expected to change due to the coronavirus pandemic.
NOTE: Arthur Jafa will be online at the Serralves Instagram account for a conversation with Philippe Vergne, on 21 April, 6pm.