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Arthur Jafa: A Series Of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions

  • Art, Digital and interactive
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Gutted. Absolutely gutted. That’s how I came away feeling from Arthur Jafa’s show – his first in the UK – at the Serpentine Sackler. Gutted because his art is so full of promise, so rammed to the hilt with vital, essential and just plain fucking NECESSARY ideas, that to see him fall so far short is one of the most miserable experiences I’ve had in a gallery for years.

Jafa is a noted and respected cinematographer; he’s influenced Beyoncé, worked with Solange, and had a massive impact on the look and feel of contemporary African-American cinema. A couple of years back he turned his hand to art. The result was ‘Love is the Message, the Message is Death’ – seven minutes of neatly edited found footage, set to Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’. It’s shockingly powerful, stunningly good. It’s a tribute, a paean, a tear-drenched hymn to the power, history and pain of black America. It’s ecstatic, feverish, brutal, heart-wrenching, painful, funny, proud. Jafa wants to create a black visual aesthetic with the same impact as black music in America, and that film is an incredible starting point.

But this show is him stumbling at the first hurdle. It centres around three screens showing a mixture of found footage and YouTube videos. There’s an Alice Coltrane live performance, video game screenshots, someone emoting to Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ – it’s all long, grainy, noisy. You walk around, silent disco-style, with headphones on, switching between channels to listen to each film. One of the spaces is full of photos by jazz photographer Ming Smith, there are clear sheets with Slayer/Slaver logos on, there are stacks of Jafa’s binders of imagery, blown-up shots of him on Facetime, a Confederate flag rendered in all black.

Jafa wants the show to feel like a ‘mixtape’. Well, it’s definitely mixed. The idea of combining tons of different elements into one is fine, but this feels un-unified and half-arsed. There's nothing really wrong with any of it, it's just not great, it has no impact, it falls flat and leaves you feeling very little - that's literally the opposite of how this should work.

‘Love is the Message…’ is so powerful partly because it was created, it was made and assembled, turned into something bigger than its sampled elements. But this show is slapdash and haphazard; it feels like it was put together in a mad rush, a last-minute dash to fill these walls with something. It’s so disappointing. And I’m not putting Jafa up against some unreachable standard – I’m measuring him against his own brilliance! His ideas are vital, but this really isn’t. Gutted.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


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