Situated in BAMPFA’s Matrix 272 room, filmmaker Arthur Jafa’s latest exhibition, “The White Album,” turns his lens to whiteness. Following acclaim for his seven-and-a-half minute video “Love is The Message, The Message is Death” (2016), Jafa has taken Black aesthetics to task on white identity.
“The White Album,” commissioned for BAMPFA, is just one part of a series of screenings and conversations with the artist and filmmaker taking place over the coming months at the museum.
The film itself consists of around 40 minutes of arranged video clips, including vlogs, footage of U.S. military bombing and viral videos of dancing cybergoths. All these clips are shown on a full-wall projection in the small, boxlike Matrix gallery room. Many of the clips are familiar, ranging from the comedic (A Bon Jovi fan dancing at the Celtics game) to the disturbingly morbid (CCTV footage of white supremacist and mass murderer Dylann Roof).
It is this self-described “affective-proximity” that expresses something other than the sum of its constituent parts. The “resequencing” of found videos, both viral and filmed by Jafa himself, creates an exhibition of “what white people saturated with Blackness look like.”
Prior to his latest output, Arthur Jafa worked as a cinematographer for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999). Jafa won the Sundance Film Festival’s “Best Cinematography” award in 1992 for “Daughters of the Dust” (directed by Julie Dash). In total, Jafa has directed four films and had his work exhibited at venues including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and London’s Serpentine Gallery. His most famous film, “Love is the Message, The Message is Death,” which Jafa has sardonically labelled his “Purple Rain”, was debuted just days after the presidential election of 2016. Backed by Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” the short film juxtaposes scenes of Black exceptionalism and Black debasement to offer a powerfully chilling appraisal of Black identity.
In conversation with The Guardian this month, Jafa expressed his frustration at how “Love is The Message, The Message is Death” gave “people a sort of microwave epiphany about blackness.” The filmmaker voiced his disappointment with audiences more willing to offer the “arrested empathy” of their tears than to engage with what his work is saying about Blackness and what it means for Black identity.
At around 40 minutes, “The White Album” is not just longer, but more complicated to digest. Unlike his other films, the focus of this one is on the white subject. In his work and as a member of TNEG, a studio committed to the expansion of Black cinema, Jafa has attempted to expand and develop the form and aesthetics of Black cinema. In this exhibit, he is turning his Black aesthetics to the white subject.
Inspired by the transformative potential of ideas expressed through Black music, Jafa’s films attempt this same aesthetic function through the medium of cinema. Jafa defines Black culture as one created in “freefall” — a result of the divergent history in forming Black identity in America. He makes use of the immaterial “viral-ness” to embody the constant state of arriving and emerging that constitutes Black aesthetic.
“The White Album” acts critically of the classic artworks to which it refers — Joan Didion’s book and The Beatles album of the same name. Fifty years after this year of revolutions that never were, Jafa’s film captures the sense of alienation of an age defined by the counterrevolutions of 1968.
If both Didion and The Beatles successfully captured the sense of unease in response to a disorderly world, then Jafa displays the unease of whiteness within the dangerously transformative racial climate of 2018. An unease that through his “resequencing” appears as much a pathology as an identity. That these white bodies are “saturated with Blackness” foregrounds the constitutive role of Black identity in conceptions of not just America, but whiteness itself. Here, Black aesthetic form shines new light on white identity.