Love is the Message, The Message is Death

Copied Arthur Jafa, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, 2016, single-channel high-definition digital video, 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 (20162018), 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.

Artwork Details

Title
Love is the Message, The Message is Death
Artist
Date
2016
Location
Not on view
Copyright
© 2016, Arthur Jafa. Image courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome.
Credit Line
Joint museum purchase with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Gift of Nion T. McEvoy, Chair of SAAM Commission (20162018), and McEvoy’s fellow Commissioners in his honor; additional funding provided by Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 2020.001.
Mediums Description
single-channel high-definition digital video, color, sound; 07:25 minutes
Classifications
Keywords
  • Figure group
  • Ceremony — wedding
  • Allegory — death
  • History — United States — Black History
  • Allegory — passion — love
  • Occupation — other — reformer
  • Portrait male — King, Martin Luther, Jr.
  • African American
Object Number
2020.3

Artwork Description

Jafa is an artist and filmmaker with a lifelong practice of compiling visual material he deems striking and relevant to understanding Black life in the United States. Long admired for his cinematography, Jafa is now equally known for videos, photographic works, and sculptural installations that feature in art spaces around the world.

Love is the Message, The Message is Death offers a swift-moving montage of the African American experience as captured in moving images, from nineteenth-century silent films to today's camera phone recordings of police killing unarmed civilians. Clips sourced from the internet are interwoven with Jafa's own home movies and past projects, and set to Kayne West's 2016 gospel-hip-hop anthem, "Ultralight Beam," itself a compendium of Black music history and voices. The selection whiplashes viewers between moments of celebration and mourning, humor and crisis, profound historical significance and everyday intimacy. Throughout, Jafa edits and adjusts playback speeds to mimic the exceptional tempo and tone control of Black musicians. This technique represents one way in which he pursues his long-stated goal of a "Black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of Black music."

Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies, 2023

New Acquisition Label

"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.

Videos

Exhibitions

Media - 2020.54.1 - SAAM-2020.54.1_2 - 139600
Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies
June 16, 2023January 29, 2024
Musical Thinking explores the powerful resonances between recent video art and popular music.

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