Art, Politics & Society

Arthur Jafa’s "Love is the Message, the Message is Death" as a leitmotif of the fight for racial justice

The year of 2020 has been (and still is) one of the most eventful in recent times and has triggered many years-long oppressed societal and political issues.

Unfortunately, the fight for the rights of Black people and POCs has a long history and this year has shown that it is still relevant and ongoing. After couple of years, #BlackLivesMatter is again one of the most searched and mentioned hashtags across the Internet. There are too many issues, primarily in the USA, but also in the rest of the world, that limit Black people to completely integrate and participate in the society in the same way as white people do. There has been too much injustice to remain silent.

The examples of racial inequality are unfortunately obvious and easy to spot. What is, however, not that often brought up, is the unique expression through culture, tradition, fashion, art and lifestyle of Black people, and more importantly its vast influence on the global cultural landscape, because it is so bold and sharp. It is a statement itself.

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Both the question why it is characterised by these adjectives and the answer to it could be found in Arthur Jafa’s critically acclaimed short film Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016).

The combination of both original and externally sourced footages showing the most diverse and extreme aspects of Black culture is disturbing and unapologetically immersing at the same time.

It is a question and an answer, because it shows the truthful representation of African American experience. Sharply cut scenes of the unjust violent treatment throughout different situations and periods performed on Black people of all ages and gender by the outstanding performances of athletes, musicians and dancers is exactly where we find the answer to the question.

Another aspect besides this disturbing rotation of extremes is the gradual sequence of scenes, which create a beautiful, but terrifying emotional experience, thus strengthen the overall impression. Because of their inferiority in American society they still experience every day, the longest standing African American protest against injustice is exactly this outdoing everyone in so many fields while showing human limitlessness in creativity and resilience.

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Jafa’s, in his words, Black display of Black excellence, was described as touching for many nonblack people as well, which proves the strength of the expression and the emotions put into this work of art. Moreover, this is one more reason why this artwork is so significant for defining the Black culture and explaining its nature and the circumstances the Black communities are surrounded by in everyday life in the US. This realistic and straightforward presentation leaves a personal impression of us, making us guilty for being a part of white-washed society, which has immersed a vast amount of Black (sub)cultures, but still oppressed the Black lives.

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Considering the global pandemic that largely defined 2020, we witnessed a break in cultural sector as well, among others. Thanks to new technologies and the omnipresent interconnectedness the Internet has brought us, Jafa’s short film has been streamed on the websites of various influential cultural institutions for 48 hours at the same time (26-28 June). This project was organised by Sculpture Garden and Hirshhorn Museum together with Smithsonian American Art Museum in the peak of Black Lives Matter protests, which echoed much further from art enthusiasts or professionals.

It brought a new perspective on the African American communities in and showed how their experience is so different from their fellow non-black Americans in a captivating way. 

Furthermore, this initiative is one more example in the ocean of examples how art can communicate societal issues and unite the people around the same idea. The only difference is that in this case, it comes from the epicentre, from the very person that is a part of the community as uses his artistic expression to voice the struggle and emotion of so many others. A direct and raw narration Jafa uses to transfer the message is another form of protest and expressing Black culture, as it is the exact opposite of calculated, cold and always (slightly) censored White media and authors.

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Followed by Kanye West’s (as well widely critically acclaimed) song Ultralight Beam, Love is the Message, the Message is Death is vital to re-discover and mention four years after its successful release, as it represents an epitome of why racial justice is so important to fight for and how Black communities in USA have at the same time struggled and excelled to earn their place in American society. Jafa sets a 7.5-minute statement of ambivalence, extremes and shows us how for Black people today, Love really is the Message, and the Message is Death.

Jafa's work is exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until January 2021. His work is also available on his Instagram @anamibia

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