“What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” —Amandla Stenberg
Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death was streamed for the first time for 48 hours from Friday, June 26 to Sunday, June 28, 2020. Following the event, the artist has made these clips from the video available so you can get a sense of the work. Engage in conversation about this artwork using the hashtag #DeathIsLoveIs on social media.
Arthur Jafa premiered Love is the Message, The Message is Death at Gavin Brown's enterprise in Harlem just days after the tumultuous 2016 election. Created earlier that summer, in the midst of an eruption of citizen documentation of police brutality towards Black people in the United States and subsequent protests, the seven-and-a half-minute video demanded viewers see the epidemic of racial violence that has always been in front of them. Powerfully channeling and contextualizing these events, the critically acclaimed video was placed in collections across the United States and abroad to increase its reach, but until now, has not been made available online. As the unconscionable murders of unarmed Black people—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks—have people protesting once again for an end to racial oppression, the artist and the many holders of this artwork agreed that it should be launched beyond museum walls and into the hands of people who might not otherwise encounter it.
With Jafa’s support, 13 institutions came together in June 2020 to amplify this work and simultaneously stream it for the first time. As one of the co-presenters, we acknowledge that sharing art is not enough to effect social change. At the same time, we believe artists’ insights into complex histories and lived experiences are meaningful and motivating. The video points to the ongoing violence and racism against Black people in the U.S., and the underlying white supremacy that is foundational to the nation’s history. The video shows how Black Americans have taken these experiences and created cultural, political, and aesthetic achievements that are intrinsic to American identity and radiate far beyond the nation’s borders. Four minutes into the video, the actress Amandla Stenberg poses a pointed question that echoes long after it ends: “What would America be like if we loved Black people as much as we love Black culture?” As part of the national collections of the Smithsonian, based in the U.S. capital, it feels particularly important to acknowledge all of these truths and wrestle with this question; learning from this work is one way to do so.
Responding to Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the Message, The Message is Death”
Eye Level, July 7, 2020, “Reflections on Arthur Jafa's Love is the Message, The Message is Death”
Eye Level, July 9, 2020, “Additional Reflections on Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, The Message is Death”
Once again, we bear witness to our country’s troubled history of racial violence . . . . we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.
—Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
SAAM supports the Secretary’s call to confront racism and social inequities in American society and within our own institution. As the Nation's museum of American art, we understand that the stories we tell in our galleries send a powerful message about whose experiences, culture, and history matters. SAAM leadership and staff will continue to work to address racism and systemic inequities in transparent and accountable ways. We are grateful to artists like Arthur Jafa who help us reckon with the history of racial oppression and whose work opens up space for reflection, dialogue, and understanding.
Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director
John Cay III, Smithsonian American Art Museum Commission Chair
Kelly Williams, Smithsonian American Art Museum Commission Vice Chair
Roundtable Discussion I
The first of two panel discussions convened by the artist took place Saturday, June 27. Participants were Peter L'Official, assistant professor of literature at Bard College; Josh Begley, artist; Elleza Kelley, writer and doctoral candidate at Columbia University; and Thomas Lax, curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Tina Campt, the Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, moderated.
Roundtable Discussion II
The second of two panel discussions convened by the artist took place Sunday, June 28. Participants were Aria Dean, artist and assistant curator of net art and digital culture at Rhizome; Rashaad Newsome, artist; Isis Pickens, First Lady of Los Angeles’ Zion Hill Baptist Church; and Simone White, poet and assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Tina Campt, the Owen F. Walker Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, moderated.
Talking About Race
Talking about race, though hard, is necessary. Our colleagues at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture have created an online resource that provides tools and guidance to empower your journey and inspire conversation.
Arthur Jafa leads a frame-by-frame discussion of the video with writer, musician, and professor Greg Tate.
Through conversation and clip sharing, Gary and Jafa explore the interplay of music and moving image across their creative careers.