Arthur Jafa is one of the most significant contemporary artists practicing today. Over several decades he has constructed a compelling body of work which defies categorization. Powerful and lyrical at the same time, his practice combines a profoundly unsettling blend of images and histories from diverse contexts and backgrounds. Bringing together affective memory that touches on matters such as the history of the United States of America, violence, repression, modalities of survival and how these exist in the production and dissemination of images, music, sound and time-based media, Jafa reflects on the ontology of race and of blackness.
Throughout his practice, Jafa has been invested in the exploration of strategies for a Black aesthetics, drawing on the experience of being Black in contemporary America and how this relates to life, death and the concept of the human. As one of the most prolific producers of his generation working across many media, Jafa delivers with incomparable precision the power, beauty and contradictions of contemporary society. His work is an essential development to understanding the complexity of racial relationships, the tension between forms of cultural expression and the specificity and energy of Black American culture. The emergence and evolution of black cinema and music in the 20th and 21st centuries as cultural products and ideological artifacts are central to his thinking. Relentlessly assembling images, which he arranges in dynamic compositions, Jafa creates cognitive maps that function as a critique of the past and a meta-critique of future possibilities, revealing the very engines that power our civilization. Brutally real, Jafa’s unflinching vision probes to reflect on the ever-present indispensability of white supremacism and anti-blackness.
Live Evil is the biggest and most comprehensive presentation of his work to date. Extending over two halls of LUMA’s campus, La Mécanique Générale and La Grande Halle, the exhibition includes a range of recent and new works created specifically for Live Evil.
In La Mécanique Générale are key works from Jafa’s career, including his films The White Album (2018), akingdoncomethas (2018) and the relief Ex-Slave Gordon 1863 (2017), among other. A series of photographs and sculptures such as Big Wheel II (2018) and Large Array (2020) map the psychology of racial relations in America today. Slowpex (2022), a slowed-down, modified iteration of his masterpiece Apex (2013), is also on display, its sound filling the entire exhibition space. Its radical contrast of images, and complexity of associations, are daunting and surprising. Large installations featuring collaged images on large scale wallpapers further reveal the piercing and intellectual rigor of Jafa’s narratives, and the unnerving, undeniable truths of his timeless messages.
For Live Evil the cavernous space of La Grande Halle has been transformed into a unique environment populated with image and sound. Seen together, the different elements in the space investigate the power, function and meaning of moving images, multimedia installations and sound. At the heart of the space, challenging the borders between cinema and technology, is AGHDRA, an 85-minute-long moving image and sound installation. Presented as a large-scale projection, a constantly moving landscape of black rocks forms waves that intensify and recede against an atmospheric sun looming over the horizon. Organized around twelve segments, each one based on a unique sound composition, AGHDRA, an entirely digital work, constitutes a unique thesis: the anti-sublime, Blackness at the end of the Anthropocene era, the unfathomable loss and the ineffable pain at the end of civilization as we know it. AGHDRA is juxtaposed with another moving image on the opposite side of the hall: Untitled (2022) is made as an homage to Jafa’s close friend and co-conspirator, Greg Tate who recently passed away. The work shows abstract fluctuation of light and shadow. Evocative and mesmerizing, it captures the expressionism, essence and depth of human emotions. Sound and image, the use of multiple projections and precise synchronization between the two projections are defining characteristics of the depth of Jafa’s explorations into our inherently fluctuating existence.
Positioned inside the space, four oversized billboards and two built environments address different aspects of Black culture. From the history of music, seen in the images of Miles Davis and Albert Ayler, to sculptural compositions and bolis (power objects that played a central role in the rituals and spiritual life of Malian traditions), this part of Live Evil alongside the narratives unfolding in the space of La Mécanique Générale, evades genre and high-steps over theory to transcend our pasts into the present. As a total artwork made of each one of its components, the installation pierces through the abyss of human predicament and relentless othering, posing of questions about our condition.
Organised by Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, director of exhibitions and programs, and Flora Katz, curator, assisted by Claire Charrier, junior project manager.
Arthur Jafa (b. 1960, Tupelo, Mississippi) is an artist, filmmaker and cinematographer. Across three decades, Jafa has developed a dynamic practice comprising films, artefacts and happenings that reference and question the universal and specific articulations of Black being. Underscoring the many facets of Jafa’s practice is a recurring question: how can visual media, such as objects, static and moving images, transmit the equivalent "power, beauty and alienation" embedded within forms of Black music in US culture?
In 2019, he received the Golden Lion for the Best Participant of the 58th Venice Biennale “May You Live in Interesting Times.”