press release

Arthur Jafa: A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions (featuring Ming Smith, Frida Orupabo and Missylanyus)

Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 29 June – 8 September, 2019
Curated by Amira Gad and Hans Ulrich Obrist
Curator at Moderna Museet: Anna Tellgren

After two decades in film, Arthur Jafa has now stepped onto the art scene. In his works, he reveals the history of American racism and explores the historic and contemporary conditions for African-American visual culture. For the exhibition at Moderna Museet, Jafa has invited the photographer Ming Smith and the visual artist Frida Orupabo, and incorporated material from Missylanyus’ Youtube channel, to create an audio-visual experience that is both politically reflective and visionary.

From Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick to Beyoncé and Solange – Arthur Jafa has collaborated with a long list of noteworthy filmmakers, artists and musicians. Since the early 2000s, he has worked mainly as an artist and visionary to create an African-American visual culture. Arthur Jafa’s narratives go way back in American history, to the imprints left on the people and the culture by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “How can I make black cinema with the same power, beauty, and alienation as black music?” is a question that underpins his entire creative process, Jafa says.

Music is this very privileged artefact in our community, so it seemed like the best place to start in terms of thinking about certain possibilities of Black cinema. The idea of Black Visual Intonation also came out of a desire to be moved more powerfully by the things that I love, which is cinema in this instance. I said, very immediately: What makes Black music Black music? What makes it behave the way it behaves?

It was the seven-minute video Love is the Message, the Message is Death, accompanied by Kanye West’s track Ultralight Beam, that brought Arthur Jafa his major public breakthrough. The video was released in autumn 2016, only a few days after Donald Trumphad been elected the 45th president of the USA.

In his videos and photographs, Arthur Jafa often explores historic moments where the African-American population were exposed to discrimination and false accusations. The work Jonathan relates to an event that took place on 7 August, 1970 in California, in which a young man named Jonathan P. Jackson broke into the courthouse to negotiate the freedom of a group called the Soledad Brothers. This trio was charged with the murder of a white prison guard in retaliation for the shooting of three black prisoners three days earlier. The attempted breakout led to the kidnapping of the court judge Harold Haley, and a shootout that left four men dead, including Jackson and Haley. Jafa enlarged an archival photograph from the Marin Independent Journal to produce a fragmented rendition of the incident.

Pledge of Allegiance 1899 (2017) is a photo wallpaper, where Arthur Jafa used a photograph from 1899-1900 of a group of African-American children in Virginia saluting the American flag with one arm raised. The similarities with the salute of the Third Reich meant that this gesture was abolished in 1942, the same year it was decided that it was unconstitutional to force pupils to pledge allegiance to the flag.

Monster (1988) is one of several self-portraits in the exhibition, and demonstrates Jafa’s interest in examining the prevalence of the white gaze in the output of photography and film. Does it matter if a black person is behind the camera, when the camera itself serves as a tool for the white gaze?

Arthur Jafa was born in 1960 in Tuledo, Mississippi, but now lives and works in Los Angeles. After studying to be an architect, Jafa embarked on a career as a filmmaker. He has worked with Spike Lee on the film Crooklyn, with Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, and Julie Dash on Daughters of the Dust, the first movie directed by an African-American woman with nationwide distribution in the USA. Jafa has also made music videos for Beyoncé, Solange and Jay-Z. In mid-May, Arthur Jafa was awarded the Golden Lion at the 58th Venice Biennale.

Other artists featured in the exhibition:

Ming Smith, born in Detroit, Michigan, has been a photographer since the early 1970s. Her most notable images include expressive portraits of prominent artists and performers – from the dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, to the singer and composer Nina Simone – along with soft, painterly street photographies from New York, where she lives. For this exhibition, Arthur Jafa has selected some twenty of Smith’s photographs, spanning from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.

Frida Orupabo, born in 1986 and living and working in Oslo as a sociologist, has developed an artistic practice in recent years, comprising digital collages, which she publishes in her Instagram flow under @nemiepeba, a virtual place where Orupabo challenges and deconstructs the white gaze. The exhibition presents a few three-dimensional photographs in the form of cut-out figures. Arthur Jafa has also included material from Orupabo’s Instagram in his video works.

Missylanyus - Arthur Jafa stumbled across Missylanyus’ Youtube channel by accident. Material from the channel is incorporated in the video work Mix 1-4 _constantly evolving (2017), which contains original and found footage that Jafa has mixed.

Curated by Amira Gad and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Presented in partnership with the Serpentine Galleries.