Arthur Jafa’s searing chronicle of Black America comes to Tate Liverpool

The artist's radical video sparked debate about race relations in the US

A still from Arthur Jafa's Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown's enterprise, New York/Rome

A radical video piece that has sparked debate about race relations in the US, tapping into the turbulent political climate worldwide today, is due to go on show at Tate Liverpool later this year (29 March-12 May). Helen Legg, the gallery director, says that Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death (2016) “speaks of our current political moment with great urgency; we felt it important to bring it to Liverpool and are delighted to be the first British gallery outside London to show it.”

Jafa’s film montage brings together clips from multiple sources, including TV news, police footage and pop videos, set to Kanye West’s hip-hop track Ultralight Beam. Excerpts show the former US President Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace at the eulogy for the nine Charleston parishioners killed by a white supremacist, Martin Luther King waving from the back of a car, and Beyoncé in the music video 7/11. 

Drake is meanwhile seen performing on stage, followed by footage of Malcolm X. Jafa’s own footage including film of his daughter’s wedding intersperses the action. The artist says: “I have a very simple mantra and it’s this: I want to make black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.”

Legg adds that Jafa is an important artist whose work spans the history of African-American presence in the United States and has had a “profound impact”. “Using stock news and cellphone footage downloaded from YouTube, Jafa packed a century’s worth of African-American experience into just seven terrifying and elegiac minutes,” reported the US critic Linda Yablonsky last year.

The Washington DC-based Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden jointly acquired Jafa’s work last November.