Before his recent rise to the top of the ranks, Arthur Jafa was not well-known within the art world—but that has drastically changed. His 2016 video Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death is one of the essential artworks of the past decade, and last year, he took home the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, the world’s top art festival. He’s also beloved among other artists: Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel worked with him for their 2018 film Happy Birthday, Marsha!, about the gay and transgender rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
Before he became an art-world sensation, Jafa came up as a notable presence on the film circuit, where he continues to loom. Below, a look at six of the best projects that Jafa has collaborated on in different contexts.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Julie Dash’s remarkable film about the migration of one Black community from the South to the North was a landmark—it was the first feature by a Black woman to be released theatrically in the United States. Much of what makes the film so unforgettable is its lyrical approach to its subject matter, which privileges small moments that threaten to take on epic significance for a group of people whose future is about to be forever changed. Jafa, who served as director of photography, aided significantly, offering dreamy, lush visuals that situate groups of Black women in sublime natural settings. When the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Jafa was given an award for his cinematography. (And as it turned out, the film’s production also involved another future art sensation: Kerry James Marshall, who served as production designer.)
Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and other sites for rental, and on the Criterion Channel with subscription
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
One of the best works by artist John Akomfrah also happens to showcase Jafa’s many talents. Working in a style closer to the one he is now known for, Jafa served as director of photography on the experimental documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X. Akomfrah’s film charts the civil-rights activist’s biography—but mainly through appropriated (and occasionally sometimes altered) footage that considers how mass media and filmed imagery have altered our understanding of such a notable figure’s life. Interspersed are interviews with various people of note, including filmmaker Spike Lee, who made a biopic about Malcolm X the year before.
Where to watch: Vimeo for rental
Jafa’s pedigree in the film world rose steadily over the course of the ’90s thanks to various famous directors, including Spike Lee. For Crooklyn, Jafa served as his director of photography—and worked in a vastly different mode from Daughters of the Dust. The images that Jafa produced for the film, which focuses on a girl living in Brooklyn in the summer of 1973, follow along with others in Lee’s recognizable style—rich with flashy colors and full of dynamic camera movements. That Jafa’s cinematography for Crooklyn was so different testified to the versatility of his aesthetic. (Several years after working on Crooklyn, he worked on another singular film: Stanley Kubrick’s final work, Eyes Wide Shut, for which Jafa provided second-unit photography.)
Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and other sites for rental
“Don’t Touch My Hair” (2016)
Jafa has become a go-to visionary of late for music videos and, in 2016, he provided cinematography for two such projects by Solange. He crafted memorable visuals for “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which features Black dancers swaying through pastel-colored settings. These beautiful images (in a video directed by Alan Ferguson and Solange) helped raise Jafa’s art to the eye of the mainstream and led to more work, such as “Cranes in the Sky,” another Solange video that Jafa shot with Ferguson. Of both, critic Cassie da Costa wrote in the New Yorker, “If there is a second act for Jafa as a cinematographer, it’s these Solange videos, which, like Daughters of the Dust, are products of collaborative work helmed by a black woman, informed by a black aesthetic, and are part of a relentlessly unruly and imaginative black archive.”
Where to watch: YouTube
Jafa’s video art tends to be loaded with images—APEX (2013), for example, features hundreds of pictures edited into an eight-minute montage that Jafa has compared in terms of ambition to Vladimir Tatlin’s vision for the Third International, an enormous twisting tower. His video for Jay-Z ‘s “4:44,” however, follows a far slower pace, with appropriated clips—an interview with Jean-Michel Basquiat, low-resolution footage of protests, concert documentation of Beyoncé and the rapper performing together—left to play out unedited for extended periods of time. Punctuating them are newly shot images of artist Okwui Okpokwasili and dancer Storyboard P contorting their bodies as though bent by unseen forces.
Where to watch: YouTube
“Wash Us in the Blood” (2020)
Jafa has never had more visibility, in the art world and beyond, than right now—and that only stands to rise with his new music video directed for rapper Kanye West. The video for “Wash Us in the Blood” abounds in Jafa’s now-signature aesthetic, with images lifted from various sources juxtaposed with clips of protestors confronting the police that might seem to have little in common (including interstellar imagery of coronas that appear to leap off of the sun). In between is footage of West rapping, with a black digital form that conceals his face. All told, the video incisively considers various traumas facing the Black community in the United States—at one point, a computer-generated ring occupies the screen while bearing the words “BLACK DEATH.”
Where to watch: YouTube