An installation at the Glenstone Museum in Maryland devoted to American artist Arthur Jafa, the recipient of the Golden Lion at the 58th Venice Biennale, aims to examine the well-known cinematographer beyond his eclipsing work Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016)—a video montage of collaged footage that searingly chronicles the Black experience in America.
The installation includes a series of recent sculptures, photographs and the uplifting video akingdoncomethas (2018)—comprising nearly two hours of amalgamated Black Christian church performances. The mesmerising piece is imbued with a Luciferan quality and honours the beauty and power of Black music, according to the artist. It is one of the works he regularly revisits in his studio these days, likening it to a memento mori.
“That work sets the bar for considering how something can stand up to the relentless expressivity and virtuosity and authenticity of those performances, or whether you can even make a work that does what those performances do,” the artist tells The Art Newspaper. “I’m not a Christian, but I believe in Black people believing. I believe in their power and majesty.”
The work was first shown at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem in 2018, in the polarising years after Donald Trump was elected president, and was screened virtually by the Museum of Modern Art last summer, amid the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in New York.
Two mixed-media conceptual sculptures—Aria and Emmanuel and Bellest (both 2021)—are being shown for the first time. The works, made with metal rails and other materials, represent a “constellation of ongoing ideas”, Jafa says, including analogies to social hierarchies and the inversion of power structures, as well as the exploitation of Black artefacts. Juxtaposed with more visceral pieces like the sculpture Ex-Slave Gordon (2017)—which appropriates a photograph showing the scourged back of an escaped American slave—these more recent pieces are “slightly more opaque, but both silent and menacing”, he adds.
There are also various photographs, including the piece Shrunken Head (2019) that depicts the “classic Black penis”, referencing Robert Mapplethorpe’s representation of Black bodies. “Someone told me that Mapplethorpe objectified Black bodies, but Black bodies are so ubiquitous in his work that I’m not sure focusing on that is an insightful view of the work,” Jafa says. “The more complicated question is how—in what specific ways—are these bodies being objectified.”
The photograph Monster (II) (1988/2018)—a self-portrait shot behind plexiglass, in which Jafa has obstructed his face and appears to threaten the camera—also speaks to the idea of reclaiming Black agency and examining the ways the violent representation of Black figures has been long internalised in American culture. It is the first work visitors encounter when entering the dimmed space, which has a “strategic and rhetorical intent, creating almost a black mirror for the viewer”, Jafa says.
The Glenstone was one 14 museums to host a coordinated 48-hour livestream of Jafa’s Love is the Message… last summer in solidarity with the BLM protests. “It was wonderful to see all these institutions come together but it also brought into focus that many audiences only knew Jafa through this watershed work,” says Emily Rales, the chief curator, director and co-founder of the Glenstone.
Although Jafa has had a successful career as a cinematographer, including having worked with Spike Lee, Solange and Kanye West on various projects, his “art career, so to speak, emerged in the last eight or nine years”, Rales says. Jafa’s Big Wheels series (2018) of sculptures, for example, comprising chain-wrapped monster truck tires—shown in an exhibition at the Venice Biennale, with one example in the Glenstone installation—are part of “various latent ideas from the past few decades that he has kept in private”, Rales says.
“Like his video works, these pieces capture his powerful vision and his incredible appetite for scooping up cultural imagery and remixing it,” she adds. The installation will be on view through 2022.