Arthur Jafa, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, 2016, single-channel digital video, high definition, color, sound; 07:25 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Joint museum purchase with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Nion T. McEvoy, Chair of SAAM Commission (2016-2018), and McEvoy's fellow Commissioners in his honor; additional funding provided by Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 2020.001., 2020.3, ©2016, Arthur Jafa. Image courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome.
Love is the Message, The Message is Death offers a powerfully moving montage of original and appropriated footage that explores the mix of joy and pain, transcendence and tragedy that characterize the African American experience. The video points to the ongoing violence against Black people that is foundational to U.S. history and continues to play out in the present. It also shows how Black Americans have taken these experiences, and created cultural, political and aesthetic achievements that are intrinsic to the national identity. Set to Kanye West’s gospel-inflected song “Ultralight Beam,” the piece swells with spiritually uplifting but candid lyrics; the music occasionally recedes allowing poignant snippets of dialogue to come to surface. The precise editing echoes the intricate rhythmic structures of jazz and hip-hop. Meanwhile, the visuals selected cover the range of famous and anonymous figures, media sources, and ideological mediation through which contemporary viewers experience and understand their world. Iconic images of civil rights leaders overlaid with gettyimages® raise questions of corporate co-option. Quick cuts of viral news and sports clips reflect media constructions of Blackness. Scenes from sci-fi blockbusters and footage from outer space bring fantasy and metaphor into play. Camera-phone-recorded YouTube videos highlight how one’s most personal moments can now become shockingly public, whether through choice or necessity.
Jafa organizes this material through formal and affective associations, linking images through visual resemblance or thematic resonance: President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” after nine Black Americans were killed by a white supremacist in a Charleston, South Carolina, church leads into a similarly framed shot of a white minister in D.W. Griffith’s racist 1913 film Birth of a Nation; footage of Walter Scott skipping slightly as he is shot and killed by a police officer follows a scene of street dancer Storyboard P’s mind-bending footwork. Figures in Jafa’s pantheon include James Brown, Angela Davis, Kevin Garnett, Mahalia Jackson, Okwui Okpokwasili, Bobby Seale, Biggie Smalls, Nina Simone, Serena Williams, Lateria Wooten, and many others. His family is here too, with scenes from his daughter’s wedding woven throughout, alongside intimate images of other African American families found on the web.
For twenty years, Arthur Jafa has straddled the worlds of filmmaking and fine art as a cinematographer and director. Jafa’s stated goal through this work is to create a moving image aesthetic “with the power, beauty, and alienation of black music.” One of his strategies, used in this video, is a technique he calls “Black visual intonation.” By manipulating shots at the frame-by-frame level—subtly slowing down or accelerating a moment or movement—his edited sequences have the nuanced control he wants to emulate from virtuosic Black vocalists.
Love is the Message, The Message is Death
- Not on view
©2016, Arthur Jafa. Image courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome.
- Credit Line
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Joint museum purchase with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Nion T. McEvoy, Chair of SAAM Commission (2016−2018), and McEvoy’s fellow Commissioners in his honor; additional funding provided by Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 2020.001.
- Mediums Description
- single-channel digital video, high definition, color, sound; 07:25 minutes
- Figure group
- Ceremony – wedding
- Ethnic – African-American
- Allegory – death
- History – United States – Black History
- Allegory – passion – love
- Occupation – other – reformer
- Portrait male – King, Martin Luther, Jr.
- Object Number
- Linked Open Data
- Linked Open Data URI