Arthur Jafa: What We Don’t See

‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’

Serpentine Sackler Gallery, 8 June – 10 September 2017

Arthur Jafa, A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions (installation view), 2017. Image courtesy the artist and Serpentine Galleries.

The most common form of colour blindness in the human eye is the inability to see red or green. In one corner of Arthur Jafa’s dense, swirling exhibition of photography, video and objects at the Serpentine Gallery is LeRage (2017), a large stand up cut-out of the comic book character the Hulk angrily pulverising the ground on which he stands. The normally radioactive-green figure is here rendered how a colour-blind person might see him: in a dark greyscale, in turn suggesting that Hulk, with all his explosive fury, is a black man. Save a few clips of grainy video, most of Jafa’s installation is similarly in stark black and white, with a sense of underlying rage that is anything but colour-blind. Surrounding us with countless images of bodies – from icons like Mickey Mouse, to self-portraits and historical photographs from Jim Crow-era America – Jafa insists we notice skin colour, and acknowledge the politics of its presence and presentations.

Visitors to the exhibition are given a pair of headphones that let you switch between the three sound channels for each of the screens that make up Mix1-3_constantly evolving (2017), a trio of video collages of found and filmed imagery ranging from video games, concerts, old documentaries and YouTube footage. One screen shows parts of the 1967 documentary The Savages, a portrait of black men in Venice, California, while on another screen a wild-haired man gesticulates to the camera in the throes of a pained passion to an extended Jimi Hendrix guitar solo. Jafa, a highly accomplished filmmaker and cinematographer who has worked with Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, John Akomfrah and Kara Walker, as well as Solange and Jay-Z, has only recently turned his hand to gallery-based installations. His strength here is that of arrangement, placement and juxtaposition; wandering around the gallery, the soundtrack from any of the three screens is unmoored, and might accompany any other part of the installation. In one instant, a loud wind howls while I look at the dyed black Confederate flag of Black Flag (2017), the next an a cappella version of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ serenades the inconsolable Hulk. Jafa hosts within the show several collage works by artist Frida Orupabo, as well as one room becoming almost a mini exhibition-within-an-exhibition of photographer Ming Smith. The blurred faces of Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka look out from her photos, while on my headphones a man is yelling, ‘It’s about me, not you – I’m an angry nigga!’

It’s a jumbled swell of input, setting you adrift in an overflowing composite portrait of ‘blackness’ – one that suddenly, at points, feels as if things touch, contract and come into poignant focus. Smith’s own face looks out at us from a street corner, strands of hair eclipsing her solemn face in Abhortion, 32nd and Park, New York, NY, 1978 (1978), while out of the corner of my eye, a facing wall is covered with an image of a huddled square of young, black children appearing as if they’re giving what we now a view as the Nazi salute. Pledge of Allegiance, 1848 captures a moment in segregated Virginia before fascists in Europe took up the arm gesture, before the US Congress officially replaced the salute during the Second World War with the hand-over-the-heart still used today. Meanwhile, over all of this, I can hear from one of the videos a father playing with his kids and their stuffed animal toys: ‘I’m Bambi and I’m gonna kill yo’ ass. I’m gonna cut yo’ legs off.’ The kids scream in delight, and it is hilarious; but in this knot of simultaneous experiences is a constant violence, sorrowful yet lightly worn.

Arthur Jafa, A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions (installation view), 2017. Image courtesy the artist and Serpentine Galleries.

On a formal level, Jafa’s stretched-out use of moving image recalls earlier filmmakers’ shifts to an art environment, like Chris Marker’s or Jonas Mekas’s multi-screen installations of the late 1990s and early 2000s; like their earlier set-ups, Jafa here places each audience member as a co-editor of the expanded film on offer. Unlike Mekas or Marker, though, these ‘extraordinary renditions’ don’t offer a personal poetics or caught moments of random serendipity. Jafa appears to be after a broader, more sweeping historical perspective, a ‘we’. Within Jafa’s tangled web, such ambiguous and accidental moments found in the exhibition as described above seem to suggest a moral imperative of how we see and are seen – that there’s an ethics to the social gaze, to communal looking. Usually, such a ‘we’ feels – in speaking and writing ­­– like a means of distancing and generalisation. And while Jafa’s scrutiny of the gaze isn’t subtle, it is nuanced, and the questions he raises are important, and not just individual, considerations. Most immediately: why are we looking at this, here, now? This is an exhibition at a national institution that demands a racialized looking at looking. Its focus might be on America’s timbres and tensions, but its colour filter feels necessary at a moment when colonial history is being whitewashed in Brexit Britain. That, in turn, calls up its own paradoxes. With the concurrent shows of ‘Soul of a Nation’ at Tate Modern and Luke Willis Thompson’s handsome 35mm celluloid portrait of Diamond Reynolds (partner of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by Minnesota police last year) at Chisenhale Gallery, it’s apparent that America’s racial issues are currently receiving substantial artistic scrutiny in the UK. Meanwhile, institutions in the UK are being snail-like in catching up to facing with Britain’s own parallel problems. The recent touring group exhibition ‘The Place is Here’ managed to finally give more exposure to black British artists working in the 1980s, with one of the artists in that show, Lubaina Himid, also having major shows in Oxford and Bristol this year; though the response was more one of relief at belated recognition than of revived debates. ‘A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions’ inadvertently highlights a long-running fetishizing of American politics through art – whether popular music and films, or painting – where dealing with racial inequalities is always a somewhere or somewhen else. Thus what currently passes instead for publically debated art is the Serpentine’s other show running alongside Jafa’s, Grayson Perry’s ‘Most Popular Art Exhibition, Ever!’, that feels, by comparison, a reductionist, stereotype-enforcing charade where Britain is made up simply of ‘Leavers’ or ‘Remainers’.

At points in his installation, Jafa schools us in the significance of the images presented, with detailed wall texts explaining the stories behind the photos presented, like the billboard-size spread of anxious faces that greets us at the entrance to the show, capturing an instant from Marin County courthouse in 1970 during a hostage shootout; or moments like the seeming Nazi-saluting school kids. At other times, Jafa leans heavily on token references to cultural icons – whether Nina Simone, Miles Davis or Krazy Kat ­– to stand in as symbolic recipients of a shared gaze. It’s a move that plays to this consumption of American culture abroad, a simplifying view that works against his intricate re-weaving of history. Which is to say, Jafa’s ‘renditions’ suggest that awareness of skin tone doesn’t necessarily rely on an awareness of context, but it certainly helps. It is the quieter instances in the exhibition, though, that carry more weight and ask something more of us. Flipping through dozens of ring binder Picture Books (1990 – 2005), Jafa has collected and paired hundreds of photographs and images from advertisements, fashion and music magazines; in one appears what must have been the origin of The Surge (2017), a large print covering the adjacent wall. Appearing like an inverted version of the American flag, smudged white stripes run across a black background on one side, while on the right a group of white men in suits stand over a large fire. Though the smaller version in the picture book holds a crucial, dark difference: on the fire is a black body, his head thrown back, his arms still bound around a piece of wood. It’s a horrific realisation, that such a fact is hidden, that the body can be made to disappear; but it’s also a reminder of what we ­­– wherever we are – need to look for, and what we need to face.

This review was shortlisted for the International Awards for Art Criticism 4, published in Exhibition Reviews Annual. It is an extended version of a text that originally appeared on the Apollo magazine website.

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