Triumph and Trauma

Arthur Jafa’s exhibition at Louisiana offers a virtuosic history lesson on Black American culture. It also deals a welcome blow to Danish racism.

Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, 2016 Video (Still: Police officer overpowering a drunk teenage girl.)

Ever since the summer of 2020, when Black Lives Matter became a global movement that found its way into prime-time media, addressing the violent paradigms of structural racism, Denmark has had a hard time maintaining its façade as an innocent teeny-tiny nation famed for its welfare socialism and fine ceramics. Although politicians and sceptics tried to dismiss the movement’s relevance by saying that problems could not simply be imported from the United States wholesale, it has become clear that Denmark’s understanding of what racism is has at least as many holes in it as a quintessentially Danish blue-fluted soup tureen has blue doodles. No, problems cannot be imported directly, just as experience cannot be adopted without lived life. But both things can be put into perspective through, for example, artistic work. This very perspective gives an added boost to MAGNUMB, Arthur Jafa’s long-awaited scoop of an exhibition at Louisiana in Humlebæk.

Having worked as a cinematographer on works such as the iconic Daughters of the Dust (1991) by Julie Dash, Jafa has long held somewhat of a cult status within the world of film. But in the past five years, his video works in particular have travelled the world, partly in the form of music videos for a roster of artists that includes Jay-Z and Kanye West, and partly in the form of works that can now be experienced on a large scale in Humlebæk.

While Jafa’s more recent video works may be harder to place within the cinematic space he hails from, they are quite comfortably at ease in an art setting, coexisting happily with the overlaps of worlds and disciplines explored here. At the same time, his project is also about developing a Black cinema that replicates the power, beauty, and alienation of Black music, as described by Jafa in the essay ‘Black Visual Intonation’ from 1998. The statement feels like a thread running throughout the entire exhibition at Louisiana – the way it shifts and changes, alternating between darkened halls with large video projections and rooms full of photographs and sculptural works. Poised between the digital, the mental, and the bodily – like a rhythmic multifaceted sampling of American reality that explores the broad scope of Black culture and being.

Arthur Jafa, I Don’t Care About Your Past, I Just Want Our Love to Last, 2018, tapet. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Copyright Arthur Jafa.

One of the first works greeting visitors to the exhibition is the video The White Album (2016). Jafa has compiled a range of clips from YouTube, all depicting different aspects of whiteness – for example, the fragile and defensive version presented in a sequence featuring a young woman launching a whining diatribe about the injustice she believes makes life harder for her as a white person. Interspersed with cringe-worthy confessions like this, we also see a militant white man loading his automatic weapon, or CCTV footage of Dylann Roof murdering nine Black Americans in a church in Charleston. Suddenly, the video cuts to high-resolution studio portraits of white people in Jafa’s own life, such as Gavin Brown, the owner of the gallery representing him.

In this way, the work alternates between micro-aggressions, love, and clear-cut examples of white supremacy, but without directly naming any of these constituent parts. This openness produces a deliberate ambivalence that puts the viewer to work. The White Album becomes a visual device that cuts through the internet’s fluid bank of documentation, analysing whiteness as a pathology. Along the way, I soon felt my own moral fantasies darting away in search of some reliable good-evil dichotomies to hold on to, like a kind of displacement activity seeking to veer away from a work that acts as a shimmering mirror in which I can position my own whiteness, seeing how it operates and performs.

In the major work, Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), Jafa’s technical practice comes very clearly to the fore. The editing done on found digital material in this work creates a sequencing of elementary pieces of the reality of Black Americans. At an early point in the video, Jafa cuts from a clip of a surging collective dance (swag surf) – creating a communal body for a crowd during a basketball game – to a young man’s dance moves that take the body’s physiological possibilities to entirely new levels, and, finally, to the horrific footage from 2015 of a white cop shooting and murdering Walter Scott with shots in the back.

Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, 2016, Video, (Still: The dancer Storyboard P in a dance-off.)

The work is set to the music of Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’, released that same year. Combined with virtuoso technical skill in an approach that does not differentiate between different image qualities or sources, the many cuts produce a stream of opposites that merge in an essayistic supercut. British artist John Akomfrah describes this methodical use of imagery as “affective proximity,” while Jafa himself compares this work to the way in which a DJ splits up musical totalities to compose new realities.

Overall, the entire exhibition feels like a composition of works that sensitively, but unsentimentally, examine a Black aesthetic from within. Photographs of Miles Davis, Whitney Houston, and punk pioneer HR from Bad Brains hang side by side with images of brutal lynchings. The same room also displays minimalist sculptures made of black-painted aluminium rails and pipes combined with chains and padlocks and gently, delicately, added Yves Saint Laurent silk scarves or bandanas. Clear links are established between structural and physical violence against Black people and the production of art and cultural sublimations. The fact that the best culture, especially music, is created by Black people and often stems from violence and oppression, pain and suffering, seems to be a contextualising motif in Jafa’s art.

The title of the exhibition, MAGNUMB, signals a numbness towards the sublime – an exhaustion in the face of the ontological horror that Jafa has, on several conversations, associated with being Black. But even though this painful connection between culture and violence is examined with perfect proficiency and great visual coherence, it is clearly not without its problems.

Arthur Jafa, Ex-Slave Gordon 1863, 2017, Vacuum shaped plastic, 144,8 x 111,8 x 22,9 cm. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. Copyright Arthur Jafa; Arthur Jafa, Big Wheel II, 2018. Chains, rim, hubcap, tyre and fabric, 242 x 240 x 104 cm. Barasch Carmel Family Collection. Copyright Arthur Jafa.

In an interview in the exhibition catalogue, artist Faith Icecold criticises Jafa for aestheticising the traumas of white violence against Black people, pointing out, for example, that he almost appears to sexualise the gruesome image of a mutilated back in the relief work Ex-Slave Gordon (2018). Icecold also states that Jafa should not exhibit at white museums or be represented in white art collections. It’s a complex conversation, one that also involves Louisiana as well as the question of exactly who cultural institutions address with exhibitions like this – beyond the usual privileged audience.

For this exhibition, Jafa has created a new work, AGHDRA (2020), a large animated projection of a sunset over a dark ocean, its waves made of solidified lava or pieces of rock floating and ‘forming’ a huge sea. A song played at a slowed-down pace accompanies the empty image. But the context of emptiness quickly evokes an echo of a ship on the waves, the waves on the sea – the sea as an eternal reminder of the slave ships that took enslaved Africans to America. This overwhelming and meditative work resonates directly with our own historical reality of the Danish slave trade, a chapter in Denmark’s colonial history which has been conveniently – and easily – suppressed through a massive resistance to information.

For example, when a group of anonymous artists recently threw a plaster copy of a bust of Frederik V into the water to articulate the colonialism that exists in our national institutions and politics, we saw how a defensive and welfare-psychotic whiteness came to the fore to once again push back the possibility of an otherwise necessary and harmless decolonisation. It is clear that the full spectrum of power does not yet want to put this issue on the curriculum in schools, or on the visual curriculum of sculptures in urban space. In the meantime, we can engage in this and many other conversations with and through Arthur Jafa’s art.

Arthur Jafa, MAGNUMB, Installation View (Large Array, 2020). Photo: Anders Sune Berg / Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.