Olamiju Fajemisin on Arthur Jafa
ARTHUR JAFA REFUSES TO BOW to the needy chorus, whose tired refrain (“What are you trying to say?”) is blind to the fact that his growing oeuvre is less concerned with producing another transcribable dissertation on the condition of the so-called Black body than with manipulating intermedial tensions between objecthood and subjecthood, articulation and comprehension, and functionality and signification. “Live Evil,” at the Luma Foundation in Arles, France, is the most comprehensive presentation of Jafa’s work to date, continuing his scrutiny of the oxymoron derived from Thelma Golden’s idea that “post Black” artists are “adamant” about not being labeled as Black, “though their work,” as she put it in the catalogue for her 2001 exhibition “Freestyle,” is “steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of Blackness.” To self-identify as such would be a “parochial thing.”
Moving beyond the rudimentary definition of montage theory (that Scene A and Scene C have a measured effect on the interpretation of Scene B), the typical “theatrical equation” dictates that the playwright compose a script, the actors perform their interpretation, and, crucially, the audience process this interpretation. “The meaning-axis is created somewhere in between what the performers do and how the audience proceed, where those two things meet,” Jafa explained to me in conversation before complicating the sum. “‘Art as vehicle’ removes the audience from the equation,” he continued, referring to “Theatre of Sources” (1976–82), an ethnographic project in search of the origins of pretheatrical practices by Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, who, during an encounter with Haitian vodou in 1979, concluded that spiritual possession occurs when an archetype becomes a person, supplanting the ego for a fleeting second. The Jungian idea that an archetype is an a priori, consciousness-preceding condition and that art is the vehicle by which this condition is communicated, thus forming meaning, speaks to the metaphysical aspect of a separate theory on relationality: what Ghanaian artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah termed “affective proximity.” Tests of Grotowski’s and Akomfrah’s theses recur across “Live Evil”; the earliest appear in Jafa’s untitled scrapbooks, 1990–2007. Multiple vectors among and within distinct images are optioned inside this Borgesian Picture Library of Babel, comprising an unknown number of three-ring binders filled with magazine clippings: “pocket museums, or pocket galleries,” ur-montages to be flipped out and shared among acquaintances. Of his late friend and collaborator Greg Tate, to whom a video in this show is dedicated, Jafa recalled, “He would always ask people, ‘Have you seen the books? Or have you been given a tour of the books?’”
In the case of the moving-image works on view in Arles when I visited this past spring, the artist’s custodianship is translated beyond individual encounters, as the clips and cuts are sewn into a determined order and rhythm. Going between “speaking in tongues” and “holding your tongue,” per Jafa, these splayed poles of expressivity—from surplus to subjugation—represent the psychological fallout of the attempted merchandising of enslaved Black people, an enterprise aborted only after centuries. “When you suspend the assumed functionality of a thing”—or in this instance, a person—“it becomes pure signifier,” the artist told me. Offering an anecdote of his childhood in the church, Jafa recalled a lighthearted yet telling moment of interpretive dissonance: “I thought the ushers were nurses or something, in case somebody fell out. But the joke, of course, is they never stopped anybody from falling out. They just kind of stand there and go, ‘Behold!’” All this is to say that Jafa’s practice of image collection—including his depictions of extreme violence against Black people—is part and parcel of his investigation into object-subject confusion. Whereas Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), asks the naive, if rhetorical, question, “Who are the ‘we’ at whom such shock-pictures are aimed?,” Jafa speaks instead of “abnormativity,” which he explains as “an attempt to create a legible [framework] to talk about values that would typically be considered deficits.” Elaborating on this subversive upending of aesthetic categories in a 2021 conversation with Tate, he said, “Some of the way I term it is ‘superbad,’ like when people shoot things that are not just bad . . . in technical terms, but they’re, like, unrepentantly bad! . . . It’s like when James Brown said, ‘I’m bad, I’m superbad,’ this whole idea that we’re going to invert these values.” When I wonder whether the slippage of the value of the image to this point suggests that the image has failed, Jafa counters, “We have to assume that the image has function in order to fail. I’m not sure it does.”
Going between “speaking in tongues” and “holding your tongue,” these splayed poles represent the psychological fallout of the attempted merchandising of enslaved Black people.
A JAUNT THROUGH THE VAST, verdant Luma Arles campus leads to the first of the exhibition’s two huge venues. La Mécanique Générale was divided by internal walls to demarcate three enclosed viewing rooms, where the “immaterial” moving-image works The White Album, 2018, Slowpex, 2022 (a slowed-down version of Apex, 2013), and akingdoncomethas, 2018, were screened on loops. Throughout the remaining open space, the white-cube effect was played to almost comic ends as Jafa flexes his abnormative muscle. Arrangements of objects, flags, cutout prints, and wallpapers of appropriated and found images of the more miserable moments in Black American history were humiliatingly lit under hospital-bright white lights. Here, proximities among images were a source of affect and affection, and uncanny compositions in which function finds increasingly little relation to signification sardonically instantiated Grotowski’s notion of “art as vehicle.” Big Wheel II, 2018, a seven-foot-tall, functionless, chain-flanked rubber tire, draws a clear association between labor and racialist subjugation. In Arles it complemented Jafa’s now-ubiquitous vacuum-formed plastic relief of a keloid-scar-ridden back (Ex-Slave Gordon 1863, 2013), hung high on the back wall. Between these works, Geto, 2018, an aluminum-mounted print of a photo of a disheveled-looking Whitney Houston—one of the last sightings of the singer before she was found dead in a hotel bathtub—disrupted the mood of historical penance with the plaintive contemporary image of the moment right before disaster. “I’m not interested in the introduction part, or the resolution part. I’m just interested in the conflict,” Jafa explained, though for him this doesn’t necessarily mean in the literal, violent sense, as can be seen in akingdoncomethas, a work that is more compilation than montage, in which minutes-long found videos of pastors and gospel singers arrested in the throes of religious excitement create a pendent tension, a kind of aesthetic edging, each rousing performance taking the viewer to the brink of ecstasy but not lingering long enough to allow a single drop to spill over.
Around the corner, a series of thirteen cutouts on steel stands (___Array, 2020) were like the pages of the scrapbooks blown up. The cutouts’ rhizomatic references to art history and pop culture elicit the singular in-betweens Jafa deems significant. Miles Davis is seen reclining, shirtless, his arms spread wide as if pinned to a crucifix; Billie Holiday appears in profile and would seem as if she were only sleeping, not lying dead in her casket, were she not surrounded by white flowers; Adrian Piper sits with her hands neatly crossed in her lap, a white handkerchief stuffed in her mouth. Riding a city bus, she is in the midst of Catalysis IV, 1971, one of several provocative, career-defining performances, inspiring, perhaps, to Jafa.
In La Grande Hall, a short walk from the first venue, was the antidotal second half of this exhibition (which the artist revisited in July, amending several works and adding a few new ones). Four billboards (all 2022) presented large-scale images of musicians, specifically jazz artists, and album covers, including Funkadelic’s Greatest Hits (1975) and a business card or poster for the record label of Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May, along with tender screenshots of a FaceTime call between the artist and his girlfriend and other found images: an enslaved man wearing a three-pronged iron collar, Kandi Burruss’s mug shot from the 2018 film Never Heard, the picture from the cover of the Roots’ Things Fall Apart (1999) showing Black teenagers sprinting away from police during a civil-rights-era riot, etc. While the center of the room was occupied by architectural structures that appear to be made of black shipping containers (also seen in the previous venue), the highlight of this space was AGHDRA, 2021, a seventy-five-minute 8K digital film projected on an enormous screen. A roiling sea of obsidian boulders crests and swells against the background of a fading orpiment sunset. Made in response to the artist’s increasing frustration with allegations that montage had become his go-to trick, AGHDRA proves his capacity to generate pathos through a structuring of intensities. Testing the hypothesis that Jafa’s cumulative works form timeless, mutable fabrics of Blackness continually available to new interpretation, “Live Evil” is artifactual—a measured exploitation of the fluctuating value and overavailability to interpretation of certain images otherwise exhausted in the current visual economy.
“Arthur Jafa: Live Evil” is on view at Luma Arles, France, through October 31.
Olamiju Fajemisin is a writer and editor based in Amsterdam.