Accessibility: Arthur Jafa

For the exhibition Musical Thinking

Wall Text

Arthur Jafa

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.”

In APEX GRID, the same approach of appropriating and remixing is applied to photographs. Scaled to fit like thumbnails into neat rows, hundreds of images reflect what Jafa sees as popular culture’s managing of ideas and fears around Blackness.

Paradoxically, these works always feel timely because they point to patterns in Black life that repeat time after time. How might our experiences of Jafa’s work change as today’s news cycles make different elements suddenly—but repeatedly—feel relevant or raw?

Please note, these works include mature content, including images of violence and nudity.

Artwork Label

Arthur Jafa, born 1960, Tupelo, MS

APEX GRID, 2018, Epson fine print face-mounted Diasec acrylic on aluminum panel

Private Collection


Love is the Message, The Message is Death, 2016, single-channel high-definition digital video (color, sound); 7:25 min.

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

Visual Description

Filling the wall to the left are four massive photographic panels; on each end of the wall is a stanchion with a sign reading, “The work on this wall includes mature content, including images of violence and nudity. Enter this space to engage or chart an alternate path around the bench to the right.” Walking along the wall, one encounters hundreds of images scaled to fit, like thumbnails, into a tight grid, each image separated from its neighbors by the light gray background. Cumulatively, the images stretch in lines across the glossy mounted surface. Strong representations of Black musicians, album covers, and other cultural touchstones are intermingled with cartoon characters, African-inspired fashion, punk posturing, nudes, otherworldly microscopic organisms, and a vast array of science-fiction and horror references, some from film and some from real world tragedies around the globe. The large scale makes it impossible to take in the full collage and singular image details at once.

To the right of APEX GRID is the glass door to the video room. In the dark room, there is a bench in the center back and two more benches near support columns along the left and right walls. The bench to the right is haptic, indicated by blue light at its base. The video is projected at maximum scale, filling the facing wall.

The video is a tightly edited collage of Black American experiences from early silent-era, black and white films to recent cell-phone recordings and Hollywood blockbusters. The first thirty seconds move from a news interview with a local hero, to swaying fans at a basketball game, to civil rights protesters, to hip-hop dancers, to camera-phone footage of an unarmed man in green—Walter Scott—running and collapsing when he is shot from behind by a cop. The next seven minutes continue this pace and range. Widely recognized figures include President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” from a podium and Beyoncé dancing on a balcony; musicians Nina Simone, Jimi Hendrix, Biggie Smalls, Drake, Lauryn Hill, Michael and Janet Jackson and Louis Armstrong, among others, performing; and athletes Serena Williams, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali dominating and celebrating. Politicians and philosophers MLK Jr, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and more recent figures appear throughout as do everyday folks praying at church, being harassed by police, enjoying sports, wading through flooded streets, farming, fighting, dancing, protesting, rodeoing, and going viral on YouTube. High-definition footage shot by Jafa at his daughter’s wedding returns repeatedly. Also recurring are scenes from The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film showing white actors in blackface and as hooded Klansmen; close-ups of the fiery surface of the sun as seen through a telescope; and snippets from big-budget alien movies. When the main song cuts out, the interrupting audio is synced with the visuals. This happens around three minutes in when police dashboard footage of a traffic stop shows a woman walking backwards along a highway at night as she begs for police for an explanation. Around four minutes, the actor Amandla Stenberg looks into the camera and asks a pointed question; later we hear and see crying young boys arrested in their home or practicing “hands-up” for a police encounter. As the song returns and reaches its climax, the final visual sequence shows a woman twerking in her bedroom, the close-up of the sun, and soul music legend James Brown dramatically falling to his knees, microphone clutched close. His singing and applause mix into the audio before the screen goes black and there is silence.


As you exit the Jafa video room, cross to the facing wall about eighteen feet away where two framed drawings start the Christine Sun Kim section. To the right of these drawings, approximately twenty feet further from the second one, is the main text for Kim’s work with the QR code for the section. Be aware that centered between the Jafa wall and the Kim wall is a large interactive sculptural bench.