Grace under Oppression

Arthur Jafa’s intertwining of video collage and music has the power to open up minds and bodies

The one artwork that really blew my mind in 2017 was Arthur Jafa’s eight-minute video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. It premiered in November 2016 at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York; I saw it at London’s Store Studios at the end of 2017. Nothing had prepared me for it beyond a lifelong love of soulful music and a general understanding – having been raised in Germany and versed in  postwar debates about the country’s past – that the smiles and jives of popular culture can be steeped in trauma.

Jafa’s masterpiece is a collage, created from snippets of mostly found footage, which reflects the lives of African Americans in the 20th and 21st centuries, set to Kanye West’s Gospel-tinged hip-hop elegy ‘Ultralight Beam’ (2016). Jafa is an artist, film director and cinematographer of great experience, having worked with everyone from Stanley Kubrick (second unit director of photography for Eyes Wide Shut, 1999) to Beyoncé (with whom he collaborated on the video for ‘Formation’, 2016). His work is a lesson in how the mix of trivial, moving and horrific clips we stumble across online have a meaning that only a scopophiliac like Jafa can fully uncover. In the spirit of the guiding dictum of Aby Warburg, that pioneering scopophiliac of modern art history: god is in the details.

The depth and quality of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death was also present in works I came across last year by Charles Atlas, Roee Rosen, Jeremy Shaw, Eva Stefani and Terre Thaemlitz. These qualities are, namely: an ability to establish, through surrealist montage, striking connections between, say, vernacular culture and astrophysics; and, equally importantly, the use of sound and music as conduits into our bodies and minds, opening us to imagery we might otherwise consider banal or, even, unbearable.

The opening scene of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death is a news clip from 2013 that went viral. A Cleveland bus driver had held three young women hostage for ten years. Eventually, one, Amanda Berry, escaped and was assisted by a neighbour, Charles Ramsey. He famously declared to camera: ‘I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms – dead giveaway!’ The ensuing rapid succes­sion of sequences at first seem unconnected. A college basketball audience performs a team ‘swag surf’, a dance that has become a kind of ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the millennial generation. This is followed by footage of a pregnant woman – Deborah Johnson, the fiancée of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, who, in 1969, was shot dead during a police raid while asleep in his bed – then by black and white film of civil rights protesters strutting like Chuck Berry.

We’re only 20 seconds in and there are already so many stories to tell. West’s brilliant track is marked as much by its jazzy hesitation as by its half-rapped autotune singing and glorious gospel choirs, contemplating the ‘ultralight beam’ that connects us to god. Twenty-eight seconds in, we see the virtuoso moves of Brooklyn streetdancer Storyboard P. Two seconds later, phone footage from 4 April 2015 appears, chillingly cinematic between lovely trees, of a South Carolina policeman shooting an unarmed Walter Scott in the back as he slowly runs away. No information about what we’re watching is forthcoming; you either know it or, if you don’t, you try to find out what just happened.

Do the next images of wildly erotic twerking or a football player making a seemingly impossible catch trivialize this endemic violence, which is also reflected through racist sequences taken from D.W. Griffith’s epic film The Birth of a Nation (1915)? On the contrary. Not only is the visceral nature of this footage intensified via Jafa’s editing but, more importantly, the scenes from sport, music and dance are directly related to oppression, in terms of how virtuosity is wrung from violence: Barack Obama breaks into ‘Amazing Grace’ at a funeral service for the nine victims of the 2015 Charleston shooting by a white supremacist; black teenagers are violently thrown to the ground by cops, followed by voguing dancers doing spectacular dips and drops. The film ends on James Brown, coiled with explosive energy, doing a ‘drop’ on stage. By the end, the symbolism of intermittent NASA footage of the sun, from which solar flares erupt like giant slow-motion whips, becomes clear: the flares are like solos breaking from a choir or victories rupturing a continuum of suffering. Jafa turns the sun and the music into structural elements of Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death: it struck a chord in me and I’m sure in many others. He allows us to intuitively feel and recognize the moments in our lives when grace has occurred under oppression – perhaps even among people we live with and love. This is my take-away for artists working with video and film today: find that chord and strike it. 

Main image: Arthur Jafa, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome. 

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

Issue 192

First published in Issue 192

January - February 2018

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