"How do we imagine things that are lost? What kind of legacy can we imagine despite that loss and despite the absence of things that never were?" Arthur Jafa
Jafa’s work is driven by a recurrent question: how might one identify and develop a specifically black visual aesthetics equal to the ‘power, beauty and alienation’ of black music in US culture?
This new exhibition, titled A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions, will take the form of a site-specific installation at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, while also expanding beyond the Gallery to the peripheries of the city with a series of performances, screenings and events in venues or areas of London that function for Jafa as ‘black sites’.
Jafa strives to create work that approximates the radical alienation of black life in the West while seeking to make visible (or emancipate) the power embedded in modes of African material expressivity. With reference points ranging from Fang sculpture to Mississippi juke joints, Duchamp’s urinal and jazz, he is widely recognised as a film and video maker with a uniquely black understanding of how to cut and juxtapose a sequence in order to draw out maximum effect. Jafa works from a set of source books of images he has been assembling since the 1980s and this ongoing archive has proved an enduring resource for works such as Apex (2013) and Love is the Message, The Message is Death, shown at Gavin Brown Enterprise, New York, last year.
Originally trained as an architect, Jafa made his cinematic debut as Director of Photography for Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, for which he won best cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. He has collaborated with directors ranging from Spike Lee (Crooklyn, 1994) to John Akomfrah (Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993) and artists including Kara Walker and Fred Moten. He has also been recognised for his work on the Solange Knowles videos, Don’t Touch My Hair and Cranes in the Sky. Explaining his favourite medium, Jafa has said: ‘Film is one of the few things, particularly in the theatrical context, that takes up as much space as architecture but like music is fundamentally immaterial.’
A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions will transform the Serpentine Sackler Gallery into a montage and assemblage of images, artefacts, source material and found footage Jafa has gathered to provide evidence of what might constitute a tangible, material-based black aesthetic. Together these elements seek to produce something akin to the radical frisson of the black body’s entry into white space that was a foundational moment in the development of Modern art.