(Cahiers d’Art, 2020)
Arthur Jafa often draws from pre-existing material. In a dedicated tome published by Paris-based Cahiers d’Art, the video artist shares how this material provides a raw and immersive glimpse into his interior world. Largely comprised of Jafa interviewing other artists, the book’s conversational structure refracts Jafa’s own relationship to creativity, identity, and narrative. These dialogues are indirect vehicles for his articulation of selfhood, intercut with images from both interviewer and interviewee’s corpus, as well as excerpts of text by Man Ray and Saidiya Hartman.
In the first dialogue, Jafa addresses his seminal 2016 short video, Love is the message, the message is Death, for which he anticipated merely an unsung YouTube future rather than art world afterlife. He patch-worked clips together without music, until he saw Kanye West perform “Ultralight Beam” on Saturday Night Live. He framed the endeavor as loose and intuitive, “taking the thing that is the primordial muck of life and just presenting it.” Although this video work leapfrogged him to fame—it was shown at Art Basel, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and acquired by American museums—Jafa came to feel somewhat pigeonholed by the work. “No more eight-minute epiphanies for people,” he tells British artist Mark Leckey, quipping: “I’m not trying to be the found footage guy.”
But, in a sense, he is the found footage guy: which is not a reductive tag, but a compelling signature. Following the Leckey conversation, the book features a visual interlude of images from Jafa’s “Notebooks,” which he began in the ’90s, featuring collected clippings of appealing iconography: African statues, Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, Jimi Hendrix, cartoons, flipped cars on fire. Like much of Jafa’s work, this scrapbook excels at summoning a feeling of intensity, thanks to his sharp-eyed snippets fashioned into observant, charged juxtapositions.
Jafa bridges his approach with that of Marcel Duchamp and the readymade, pondering, “how can you make a thing without making a thing?” He notes, “If you take one photo from one place, and you mix it… you want to say something that that artist originally didn’t attempt to say. Then, the people who look at this will in turn create yet another meaning.” This championing of transmutation allows for the sprouting and flourishing of subjectivities.
Across the multiple tête-à-têtes, Jafa’s conversation partners offer diverse takes on art practice. Frida Orupabo positioned her collage making without frills: “Intuitively I link the concept of art to something institutionalized,” she says. “For me, the things that I have been doing… it’s very much a part of my daily routine, like eating, going to the toilet, going to work, going home.” Jafa brought her work into a show of his in 2017; before that, she remarks, “it was just lying around on Instagram for the people who cared.” By contrast to Orupabo’s lack of ceremony, Torkwase Dyson has a very different tenor in which she describes her work, full of abstruse references to scalar politics, hypershapes, inherent fugitivity, hauntology, and bathymetry. Dyson fully embraces this opacity, declaring: “I’m uninterested in legibility.”
Legibility doesn’t refer only to overcoming hard-to-decipher jargon, but also aesthetic and conceptual codes determined by the white gaze. Discussing Charles Gaines’s “theater of refusal” with Dyson, Jafa addressed how Black artists willfully create “resistance to the demand of acquiescence to white supremacist dictates.” This concept is reprised in Jafa’s conversation with Rashaad Newsome, who noted that the dominance of white normativity means “Black folks are forced into… a kind of self-amputation,” which immobilize Black artists from using “their own resources.” This echoes too with Dana Hoey: she and Jafa discuss how “essentialist and overdetermined ideas about what you do” are applicable to gender as well as race—and that avoiding these ideas can, unfortunately, give them backhanded power.
This comes into play with how Jafa’s own work is often interpreted. “Sometimes it’s just vibe… not the semiotic content of the image,” he explains. But a more militant reading is grafted on: “when you work with Black bodies it’s made into something political right away,” he observes. Politicized or not, Jafa situates his work within the ever-evolving timeline of art history. He describes Love is the Message as having a kinship to Michelangelo and Bernini, to “bodies twisted and taut” like those in Renaissance paintings. Still, just as Greek or Roman sculptures have become dissociated from their origins, Jafa mused that “it’s hard to imagine how people will read ‘Black work’ 400 years from now.” Meaning is never transcendent, and the heated implications of today’s takes will change and dissipate in the unknown future.