Arthur Jafa isn’t particularly interested in making ‘good’ art. “When you look at Mount Fuji, is it a good mountain or a bad mountain?” He challenges the journalists at the press preview of his new exhibition at OGR Torino, a multipurpose cultural centre in a former train repair facility in the heart of Turin, Italy. “I don’t care if it has a meaning,” he says, referring to the work inside the space. “I don’t even care if people like it or not.”
Jafa’s attitude towards the way his work is received and the emotional impact it has on its viewers has pushed his artistic output in new directions, following the enormous success of his 2016 video, Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death. The overwhelmingly affirmative responses to the work, a rapid-fire barrage of images of Black life in the United States, set to an emotive soundtrack featuring then-named Kanye West, has forced Jafa to reassess his method. His pairing of images and music offered viewers a cathartic experience that, ironically, recreated the very issue he had set out to unpack. The American artist has an ongoing preoccupation with how to make art that has the “power, beauty, and alienation“ embedded in the experience of Black music, while asking what it would be like if the Black people were loved as much as Black music. The questioning of his work’s impact was the driving force behind the creation of his 2018 piece The White Album, for which he was awarded the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The 30-minute video-collage-slash-radical-mixtape homes in on the fragility of white self-conception in the United States.
The Turin art exhibition, titled RHAMESJAFACOSEYJAFADRAYTON, is Jafa’s first solo exhibition in an Italian institution. It continues the contemporary artist’s engrossment with Black music, this time shifting the focus to a larger narrative, told through the lives of some of its protagonists. It’s part of a touring exhibition, initially titled A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, that was presented at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Jafa reconceived this iteration of the show for specific viewing conditions, in the colossal space and its architectural style of post-industrial rejuvenation.
Entering a dark, cavernous exhibition hall, the visitor is lured in the direction of light and sound emanating from a video work installed somewhere out of view. But in order to reach the source of the foreboding sonic scape that vibrates throughout the space, visitors must pass through a tunnel-like installation, just wide enough for comfort, when turning some of its corners. With walls a couple of metres high, it is hardly spacious enough to allow one to step back and take in the large-scale, blown up found images that cover the full length of the installation’s maze-like structure.
But that’s not the only reason the imagery is hard to process. A sense of violence permeates the art installation, even before the shock of being confronted with a life-size archival image of a lynched body. The grainy, black-and-white picture is shown alongside images of Jimi Hendrix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a scene from the 1936 black-and-white sci-fi film Flash Gordon, an image of Raw Power-era Iggy Pop (wearing the iconic metallic silver pants that fetched more than $70,000 at auction in 2020), and images of the three Black guitarists that the exhibition’s title pays tribute to—Arthur Rhames, Pete Cosey, and Ronny Drayton.
At the end of the tunnel, visitors spill out to a massive hall where an 85-minute video work AGHDRA (2021) is projected. Here, too, Jafa eschews the aesthetics he has become most known for. The work’s pace is hypnotically slow, and with its bass-heavy droning soundtrack the effect is more mesmerising than heart-rending. Using computer generated rather than found imagery, Jafa creates a black ocean with undulating waves, the texture of which coalesces into a substance that looks like chunks of slate. The sun moves through both day and night in a toxic haze and the black waves get alarmingly high. The Isley Brothers’ 1974 version of Hello It’s Me, which already stretches out Todd Rundgren’s 1972 track considerably, is slowed down even more, sounding pitched down and slightly distorted.
“Thinking is often times overrated,” Jafa tells STIR, when asked about the physical experience he sought to achieve with this immersive exhibition. “A big part of my interest in Black music is how, despite this being an anti-Black environment, Black music supersedes that. And I am really curious as to how people can hate Black people but love Black music? I think a lot of that actually has to do with how it operates on your nervous system.”
The sequence of images in the tunnel-like sculpture, as it turns out, are also meticulously thought-out to imprint on our senses or, as Jafa puts it, “is intuitive but super-considered.” Here, Jafa charts the history of Black “potention,” a term he coined to express what he describes as “the inherent tension between actualised and unactualised potential or capacity. And how that’s a fundamental aspect of Black life.”
“You have a certain capacity, but are you allowed to actualise it?” he explains. “This is true for women as well; it’s true for anybody who’s not—The Citizen.”
The Black “potention” Jafa address in RHAMESJAFACOSEYJAFADRAYTON has to do with Black geniuses such as Basquiat and Hendrix, who have written and changed art and music history, in ways few Black artists were able or allowed to. But it came at a price—both died aged 27. “We don’t know what a 30, 40, or 50-year-old Hendrix would have done,” says Jafa. “It’s almost like there’s a pact that’s been made that if you are allowed to actualise in a way that is atypical for Black people, your lifespan is shortened to almost nothing.”
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