All love: Arthur Jafa in conversation

Volume 4 Issue 003: The American artist talks terror, trauma and America’s inability to reckon with itself with Acyde and Tremaine Emory.

Arti­cle tak­en from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 003. Order your copy here.

Arthur Jafa is an artist and a filmmaker, a thinker and a dreamer. Currently enjoying a late-career purple patch – one that began with his seven-minute video montage Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death in 2016 – the 59-year-old has taken a decidedly long-distance approach to his work: his Golden Lion for best artist at last year’s Venice Biennale coming 29 years after his award for Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. The Face Creative Council members Acyde and Tremaine Emory caught up with him in Miami. Read an edited version of that conversation and listen to the full audio below. 

Acyde: Growing up in Mississippi, what was your outlook?

Arthur Jafa: My outlook was that I was trying to get the fuck out of there! I didn’t even have sex until after I left. I think on some level that’s because I didn’t want to get stuck. I thought about it afterwards and my brother, who was three years younger than me, probably had sex before I did. But I was just determined not to get stuck. I did not want to get stuck in Mississippi, and it was bound up with that. I mean, I went right to the edge. But then it was like, Why didn’t you?” Because I didn’t want to get stuck! It’s really not that complicated.

Tremaine Emory: My pops, he works in film like you. He went into the army because he didn’t want to work at the pecan factory. He’s from Harlem, Georgia, a small red-light town. He said: I just wanted to get out.”

AJ: For black folks, I think it’s a thing: the drive to get out. And for me it was just movement away from terror.

A: When you say terror?

AJ: I mean like every day for real, real terror. Not existential dread. I’m talking about people being killed, people being violated, physical violation from the most casual sort, of stepping over taboos and certain boundaries.

TE: It’s interesting you say terror” specifically. I called my dad at Christmas and the conversation spun into the fact that he was like, Tremaine, you know I’m 65, I’ve seen a lot. Al Qaeda, Isis. The worst terrorist organisation in the history of America is the Ku Klux Klan.”

L-R: Acyde, Arthur Jafa, Tremaine Emory

AJ: Indisputable.

TE: He told me this story. In Georgia there are two lanes. A white family was driving slow, and a black family was trying to get somewhere. The black family overtook the white family, and the white guy knew who that black person was. He went and told the white sheriff. The next night, the sheriff and one of his deputies went to that man’s house, knocked on the door and beat him within an inch of his life. Because he passed that man. This was 50 years ago. This ain’t slavery time, you know what I mean?

AJ: The thing about that kind of stuff is that it’s like that term decimate”. Decimate means to kill one tenth of. If you have a room with 10 people in it and you’re trying to control them, you just need to kill one person to make everybody else get in line. It’s a discipline. You don’t kill everybody.

TE: Because if you kill everyone…

AJ: Well, who’s going to do the work if you kill everybody? But the whole idea is discipline, control and trauma. In other words, you don’t have to get run over by a car to be traumatised. Your brother or your mom can get run over by a car, and you will decidedly be traumatised. Any black person over a certain age, you don’t have to scratch very deep for them to start coming out with stories like your pops’ story. Nobody has to beat you to within an inch of your life with a flashlight for that shit to chill you. That’s what terror is. There’s horror, and then there is the way in which those actions shut down people’s capacity to imagine more.

  • The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.”  The whole history of America is papering over shit.” 

A: How much of your work deals with that level of trauma or inherited trauma?

AJ: I would say there’s very little I do that’s not touched by it. In some things it’s more explicit than in others. Not to beat a dead horse, but the whole American proposition is based on genocide. It sounds corny and political but it is what it is. So there’s very little in the context of America that’s great, that isn’t tethered in some way to the whole psychic space. Because that space exists, but it’s not unpacked. By and large, it’s so suppressed in America. And like anything, if we put shit in the dark, it festers. America has never really done that kind of reckoning, on a psycho-analytical level, with its actual history. As a matter of fact, the whole history of America is papering that shit over. 

You know, I met with a sister last week. She’s a studio executive, and she was asking me what I wanted to do, she had some ideas. She said a western. I grew up watching westerns because that was my dad’s thing, but I was like, I have no interest in making a western.” I just don’t. Even though there is a book that I think is phenomenal and maybe I would like it if it came up: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is talking about violence and trauma. That’s why that book is the best western ever written, and it’s Cormac McCarthy’s best book, because it’s biblical. It’s apocalyptic. But his language. That’s the thing with McCarthy. It’s like Faulkner or something. This shit is fucking intense, man. 

A: The first time I encountered your work was when I walked into the MOCA museum in LA and saw Love is the Message.… And the information contained within the piece… relevant, not relevant, that wasn’t what struck me. What struck me was the texture of it. There’s a textural quality to all your work I’ve seen that is consistent. 

One of the problems I have with cinema right now – I love The Avengers, whatever, it’s like escaping for three hours. But texturally I don’t feel anything beyond watching it. Whereas your work sort of lingers with me because of that textural quality. Do you think you could replicate what you do in that space, in the space of cinema, for instance? 

  • Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.”  Getting out of Mississippi was just movement away from terror… people being killed, people being violated.” 

AJ: Yeah, of course. I think that to me, Love Is The Message… ain’t nothing but a demo. It was always a demo for me. I was sitting in New York with nothing better to do and had collected all this footage, and I put Love Is The Message… together in two or three hours. Eighty per cent of it. The beginning, middle and end never changed.

And after I made it, I looked at it and said, Wow, this is kind of intense.” I was showing it to my editor, Chris Mitchell. He was like, This is kind of intense.” And so my first impulse was just to put it on YouTube, basically. Everybody just said, Don’t put it on YouTube.” They stepped in collectively, the community. Kahlil [Joseph – filmmaker and director of Beyoncé’s Lemonade] took it to Art Basel in Switzerland because he was screening his cut of Lemonade. And prior to him showing that, he showed Love Is The Message…, unannounced. He didn’t say what it was. He just played it. And Gavin Brown, my eventual art dealer, happened to be in the audience and saw it.

I still remember driving in the car. I was driving my son to school and getting a call from Gavin and him saying, I just saw this thing that you did. I would love to sit down and meet with you.” He was like, Well, first of all, I think we should show that video.” And I’m thinking like, Oh, you want to have it in a group show or something next year?” He was like, I want to show it in the next two weeks.” Because he wanted to show it before the [2016 US Presidential] elections. It was important to show it before the elections. About three weeks later, there it was.

I don’t really think he anticipated that it was going to just explode the way it did. But maybe he did because he completely made that happen. I mean, I made the piece, but if it had been left to me, that shit would be on YouTube and my life probably wouldn’t have changed that much.

About

Arthur Jafa, 59, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. He worked as a cinematographer with Spike Lee on Crooklyn (1994), Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and his ex-wife Julie Dash on 1992’s Daughters of the Dust, winning Best Cinematography” at Sundance Film Festival the same year. He’s since worked as director of photography on music videos for Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair and Cranes in the Sky, and directed the music video for Jay‑Z’s 4:44. His 2016 video essay, Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, was met with universal critical acclaim in 2016, and in 2019 he won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.


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