Arthur Jafa: A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions
JULIA STOSCHEK COLLECTION, BERLIN
FEBRUARY 11, 2018 – DECEMBER 16, 2019
On the day I visited Arthur Jafa’s exhibition at the Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin, there was a woman dancing in the gallery. She hugged the left-hand wall of the second room, jerking her hips from side to side as if she were in one of the city’s many nightclubs. Her movements were comprehensible and legible, as she wore a pair of wireless headphones all visitors receive upon entering the show. Each set plays a soundtrack Jafa produced to accompany the works on view (his own films and installations, and a selection of pieces by Missylanyus, Ming Smith, and Frida Orupabo). And as I watched her, they beat out a techno track with a quick rhythm of snare kicks and high-pitched trills engineered to ensnare the body. But though this woman’s dance made physical sense, it felt somewhat grotesque in its application: The screen facing her displayed a film reel, compiled by Jafa, that included images of extreme violence—most often, violence committed against Black people. There was a photograph of teenagers running, terrified, from police in Civil Rights-era Bedford-Stuyvesant; another of a man lynched and hanged from a tree; and somewhere in between these, a few seconds of a video clip played showing a young man being taken into court custody, his sobs inaudible under the film’s overlaid music. Why did Jafa present these scenes in this way? How were we meant to react?
In a 2014 interview, bell hooks praised Jafa’s films precisely for their capacity to provoke such moments of confusion and uncertainty in their audience. His montages, she observed, “come back at us, forcing us to think about ‘what is it that I am seeing?’ and ‘why am I seeing it this way?’”1 A Series of Utterly Improbably, Yet Extraordinary Renditions—which traveled from the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, in London—seems similarly curated, or rather choreographed, by Jafa, with Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Amira Gad, to add a sonic dimension to the themes hooks raised. The show prompts us to consider: What is it that I am hearing? And why am I hearing it this way?
The exhibition is structured around four filmic mixes made in 2017, collectively titled Mix1–4_constantly evolving, with a runtime well over five hours. They take Black identity and aesthetics within Western media and popular culture as their broad theme, and are woven from a diverse range of found footage, including slickly produced art films (Kahlil Joseph’s 2013 short Wildcat), little-known historical documentaries (Alan Gorg’s 1967 The Savages), and grainy YouTube videos. In some instances, the sound is diegetic, originating from footage itself, or else feels complementary in mood to the pictures’ charge, which can run the emotional gamut from harrowing, to joyful or serene. In others, like the moment described earlier, the music seems deliberately inappropriate or mismatched. And some portions of the films can, upon prolonged contact, produce an uncanny sensation similar to watching an inexpertly dubbed foreign import, in which lip movements fall out of sync with spoken words—an act that cleaves picture and sound, leaving, depending upon your perspective, either a well or void of meaning in its wake.
Although the use of music is typically integral to Jafa’s artistic practice, it arguably receives even greater prominence of place here. The headphones one wears throughout the exhibition are physical reminders of the importance of sound, and visitors are guided aurally through not only Jafa’s films but also the photographs, collages, and sculptures placed around the galleries. Smith’s radiant snapshots of African American life, which close the exhibition in their own room, are paired with rock and soul music, while Jafa’s wall-sized installation Unbalanced Diptych (2018), featuring side-by-side photographs of a lynching and gang members, shares space with the second film mix, and can thus be accompanied by any of its sounds. Viewing it to the funk of Soul Train may give the work a tone of light irony, whereas a rousing church gospel choir lends a certain sobriety to its message. “Still images” do not stay still; and neither do we, moving around them, stay still in our relation to them.
By animating the two-dimensional pieces on view, and explicitly manipulating how we experience the gallery space—sound-tracking our steps as if we, too, inhabited a film—Jafa makes us part of the installation, bringing our bodies into the same planar orbit as the artworks. The result is something of a conflation between human and thing, explaining, perhaps, why I felt the dancing gallery-goer was also on view for me to observe.
This blurring is key to furthering Jafa’s mission of creating a new lexicon of Blackness, questioning, in real time, the very systems of thought and perception that have historically rendered it imperceptible or flattened it into caricature. As Jafa notes in an interview conducted for the Serpentine exhibition, the rigid opposition between subject and object is a Western phenomenon, and a dialectic that helped to make the dehumanization of slavery thinkable, even logical, to its white perpetrators. Citing the art historian Robert Farris Thompson, author of African Art in Motion, Jafa reminds us that many African cultures conceive of subject and object quite differently. Masks and sculptures displayed as artifacts in American and European museums were not made to be placed on a pedestal but were instead designed as extensions of the human body. They “mov[e] around the subject just as much as the subject moves around the object.”2
Jafa challenges the white, Western eye and its attendant ear on two fronts: His incorporation of visitors into the exhibition asks that we reconsider subject and object positions, while at the same time, his “mixes” expand the possibilities of Black subjecthood, preventing any one reductive or expected definition to coalesce. That his films are frequently built from familiar images and well-known music or television only enhances their effect. They use old ingredients but spin something new from them, opening other pathways for seeing and listening. Jafa’s films take well-worn elements and distort them; again, in hooks’s words, his films come back at us—they lure us in with their seeming familiarity, then confront us, surprise us, and back us into new sensory corners.
HANNAH STAMLER is a New York City-based arts writer and history Ph.D. student at Princeton University.