September 2020
Interview Lisa C Soto 

« One of my mentors is Haile Gerima who is an Ethiopian filmmaker.
My earliest formal exposure was at Howard University and the diet of things that were shown was very skewed away from Hollywood.
I have seen all of Ousmane Sembène’s films. I wouldn’t say I have seen everything that has come out of Africa but I would say I have seen the leading auteurs like Idrisa Ouedraogo, Souleymane Cissé, Gaston Kaboré, Djibril Diop Mambéty, and I loved Atlantics directed by Mati Diop, Mambéty’s niece. I was fascinated by Nollywood since I first started watching it 20 years ago. I was like “what is this???”. »

– Arthur Jafa

Arthur Jafa © Andrea Merola -Shutterstock
US artist Arthur Jafa holds the Golden Lion award for best artist. 58th International Art Exhibition of the Biennale in Venice, Italy, 11 May 2019.

At SOMETHING WE AFRICANS GOT we believe art films are the future of African Art. We talk with cinematographer and artist Arthur Jafa known for his revolutionary piece Love is the Message, the Message is Death, a montage of found images, videos, as well as personally shot footage reflecting on Black America, on his childhood and on what’s coming next. Jafa comes from a family of accomplished athletes and coaches including Ralph Boston, gold medal winner in the Olympics and world record holder for the long jump, and a previous generation of master bricklayers.
Jafa and his three younger brothers (all artists as well) grew up on a college campus where both of his parents worked (his father as a science teacher, football and basketball coach, his mother as a teacher of business administration) in Coahama College, Mississippi. They were recruited to Coahama after they moved back from Alabama where the KKK protested Jafa’s father who had become the football coach for a newly consolidated school system — where Black and White kids were part of the unified football team under a black coach — by burning down their house.
As a student of Howard University, his love was for architecture, he had a gift for understanding spatial relations. This gift translated in to his career as a cinematographer on films, such as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, as well as music videos like Solange’s “Don’t Touch my Hair” and Jay Z’s “4:44”. Jafa is also a renowned contemporary artist working in video art, as well as sculpture, employing that same affinity to spatial movement and organization to create dynamic installations.  He specifically and unapologetically addresses the Black American community in his artwork but everyone is invited to check it out…

Lisa C Soto : Let’s start from the beginning. You were born in Mississippi the birthplace of American music, known as the Delta Blues. What did the world you were born into look like in your eyes?

Arthur Jafa : When we lived in Clarksdale we would go back and forth weekly to see my grandparents and spend summers and Christmas in Tupelo, where I was born. My earliest sense memories are not optical. In particular, I remember my father’s father, who died when I was four. We used to drive down to Laurel where he livedTupelo is northeast and Clarksdale is northwest — in the middle of the state, a very different environment. I have a very strong sense memory of his space because it was so different to ours. He lived in a shotgun shack where he had quilts that had a particular smell, and hunting dogs, Beagles, that would make a lot of noise. They were not so much visual [memories] but haptic; more tactile, more smells, and spatial. With smells it was bodily smells, not bad, but just of people being in close proximity to one another, or quilt smells like something that was passed on not something you get at Target. At that time people made things, they recycled things, quilts were made from recycled fabrics so they came with an olfactory dimension. It was rich. Now it’s not supposed to have an odor, good or bad, it’s supposed to be sterile. 

Was it in high school that you began to cut up magazines and create what became “the books” [Jafa’s collection of assembled binders of found images] before you were dealing with moving images? 

I would resist that there was a discrete sequence of going from still to moving images. Prior to me being able to remember something I would consider as an identifiable instance of me cutting out magazines, of having a coherent practice, I was looking at a gazillion hours of television and movies. I remember the transition from black and white to color television —  it was a four-year period. By the time I was six [1965/66] we had a color TV, the movies were always in color. But the earliest expressive behaviors, modalities or actions were sculptural, like with Lego blocks. I would say they were proto-architectural. I was building these structures when I was two-years-old. My ambition since I was young was to be an architect, which I studied and trained for but never practiced. That was always my first love. Looking back, it seems very clear to me that people who have certain kind of impulses tend to go in that direction, like if you hear sound in a certain kind of way you can end up being a musician or a composer or an auditory engineer. People who worked with me in my career would notice that I would always want to pack the truck at the end of the day. It is like Tetris for me, I always had a knack for it. People would say it is impossible to get everything in there but I could see where everything fit, it was almost autistic. It made sense that I was interested in architecture because there was some sensory overlap. 

It also made sense that I became interested in film. It is a different kind of space, a physical material space, not simply a representational space, like that of a picture. Often photographers are paying attention to a two dimensional space, which is very different than architecture. Film is in a place in between, photography and architecture, it is both as immaterial as a two dimensional photo in terms of the actual image, you can’t stick your hand in it, whereas you can walk around architecture or a sculpture. Film is different, particularly when you are talking about motion picturea movie experience of a large-scale projection — if nothing else but for the scale. 

I can remember when I was little there was the View-Master — it used to have this round part with images and when you looked into it you would get this 3D photograph. I spent a lot of time staring at those stereoscopic images. So I grew up around all of this: television, movies, stereoscopic images, View-Masters, my dad took photos, he also took super 8 films viewed with a projector, so it wasn’t one thing, and of course there were magazines from the beginning. The magazine thing intensified as I got older because there were more magazines. By the late 60’s the printing technology had evolved to a degree where there were images everywhere and advertisers were using images in a very aggressive way, like Mad Men, in print and television. We may have studied films, film theory, and classic continuity, but by the 70’s people didn’t really see movies that were not broken into — you do whatever you need to do to follow the narrative. In something like the 1960’s television show Bonanza there are like four or five commercial breaks and each of those breaks are going to have two or three different story lines for every fifteen minutes of a fifty minute long narrative arc. What you are actually seeing is way more complicated than the actual thing that was produced. So this capacity to follow a through line in a discontinuous sequence is a given, it is not like you are trying to make things that are discontinuous. I think it would be difficult to make things that were continuous. There is nothing unique about following a discontinuous thematic or narrative conceptual arc; those are things that are just a consequence of contemporary media.  (…) Find the full version of  this interview in SOMETHING WE AFRICANS GOT 11.

Lisa C Soto
September 2020