Notes on the Collection: Arthur Jafa’s Black Visual Intonation

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Arthur Jafa, Love is the Message, the Message is Death, 2016 (still). Courtesy Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

By: Ade Omotosho

It begins with Charles Ramsey recounting Amanda Berry’s rescue and ends with James Brown on his knees. Barack Obama sings “Amazing Grace” in that sonorous voice; crowds swag-surf at a basketball game; a stately Bayard Rustin; Miles Davis in profile; a woman embodies the devout convulsions of the spirit; Walter Scott is murdered; Serena Williams crip walks on a court; Saidiya Hartman strolls; a white male officer slams a young black girl to the ground; solar flares; Noah Davis rides a bike. The singing and dancing, the dismal violence and the stinging cruelties. Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” pulsing all the while, its rhythm only occasionally broken by audio from the clips. Disquieting, uplifting, jarring.

Love is the Message, the Message is Death, a video installation by Arthur Jafa in the collection of and on view at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), interlaces all these scenes and more in a dense collage spanning seven brief yet arresting minutes. The video has garnered praise from viewers and critics alike, so much so that one might mistake Jafa for some newly illumined art world star, catapulted to success by effusive acclaim and popularity. But Jafa’s brilliance isn’t new. For three decades, he has worked as a cinematographer and filmmaker, an insightful theorist of Black cinema, and perhaps less recognized though equally impressive, as an archivist of hundreds of images from various sources.

One of the most striking and admirable aspects of Jafa’s career is the degree to which he has continually meditated on Blackness and its relation to cinema. In his early interviews and writings from the 1990s, one finds the preoccupations that have cleaved to his investigations and shaped his career over the course of many years. In an essay (originally delivered as a lecture at Dia Art Foundation, New York in 1992) published in Black Popular Culture, Jafa asks, “How do we make Black images vibrate in accordance with certain frequential values that exist in Black music?” With Love is the Message, he seems to offer an answer.

The film is driven in part by the logic of Jafa’s visionary concept known as Black visual intonation, which he defines as “the use of irregular, nontempered (nonmetronomic) camera rates and frame replication to prompt filmic movement to function in a manner that approximates Black vocal intonation.” This idea is poised on his belief that music is the “height of Black expressive culture.” He is well attuned to the expressive force of the corpus of Black musical traditions and frequently sets it as the standard to which Black cinema, if it is to be most compelling and most affecting, should measure itself. His ambition, surfacing again and again in his interviews, is to create cinema that “replicates the power, beauty and alienation of Black music.” Jafa recognizes that cinema, as a historical artistic medium, is one well-honed by European practitioners, but less so by their Black counterparts, a consequence of their exclusion from practicing the medium. Its newness relative to Black artists affords an opportunity to forge a singular aesthetic tradition. But this can only be achieved through modes of experimentation that see these filmmakers adapt and respond to the sensibilities of Black cultural production, notably music, and use them as means to structure film. Black visual intonation, as both theory and practice, is an attempt to envision a cinema that exists outside of Eurocentric limitations.

In Love is the Message, Black visual intonation manifests in the ingenuity with which Jafa edits and sequences the footage. Certain footage appears altered, distorted to run slower or faster. The rapid cuts between sequences leave little time to process the disparate images; just as one begins to fix itself in the mind, another takes its place. These images are held together by sharp juxtapositions, as when a sequence of dancing gives way to police violence.

Jafa’s editing interweaves images of discordant emotional tones into a staccato composition of a kind of capaciousness that can best be described as “polyventiality,” another of his terms, meaning “multiple tones, multiple rhythms, multiple perspectives, multiple meanings, multiplicity.” What unfolds is a narrative that echoes the strained, ever-assailed rhythm of Black life with its rising and inevitable falling—a tremulous existence.

In many ways, Love is the Message feels like a response to Jafa’s rigorous, original questions concerning the potential of Black cinema, which have sustained and motivated him throughout his career—what shape it might take, how its possibilities might be realized. If Black visual intonation was only just emerging then, it thrives now. More than 20 years removed from that initial proposition and Jafa has not abandoned the concept, cast it off as some fanciful idea from his earlier days. Instead, he’s made productive use of its possibilities and spun it into a video that brims with imaginative acuity. It modulates every second of this remarkable work.

Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message is Death is on view at PAMM through April 21, 2019.

About Notes on the Collection
“Notes on the Collection,” a blog series by Pérez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) first Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Ade Omotosho, where he’ll focus on artworks on view from the exhibitions and from the museum’s permanent collection. Omotosho will share his notes on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with various artworks that he hopes might provide a generative way to think about PAMM’s diverse collection.

About Ade Omotosho
Ade Omotosho is the inaugural Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Prior to PAMM, he was the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His research focuses on international modern and contemporary art with a particular interest in the practices of artists of the African diaspora. He received his Bachelor of Arts in art history from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2017.

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Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Ade Omotosho.

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