Arthur Jafa: Visualizing a Continuum of Black Visual-Cultural Image Production

5 min readJun 3, 2019

Arthur Jafa

Arthur Jafa’s work examines blackness in relation to movement, form, and sound. Using the power of cinema, music, and pop culture, he juxtaposes moving images and still photography to establish a nuanced, complex multi-narrative continuum of blackness. He actively promotes his theoretical perspectives on how black aesthetics operate in life.

His core idea is that black cinema should “replicates the power, beauty, and alienation of Black Music”. The black music produces certain feelings and aural sensations, he wants to achieve this vision through film.

Jafa’s filmmaking technique coined as “Black Visual Intonation”, where the frame rates of the photos and videos on screen are quickly manipulated to highlight the subtleties of appearance, expression, emotion, and movement.

Intonation is defined as the rise or fall of the voice when speaking, singing or playing an instrument. Jafa is making the allusion of sound to that of visual imagery having a “tone” or type of musicality.

In many of his talks, Jafa references how black cultural production happens in free-fall, referring to how black people create out of a spiritual place, from lack, pain, and loss. Furthermore, Jafa theorizes this vulnerable place as the calculated removal of rooted African culture (from African to African-American) produced by the Transatlantic Slave Trade, coming to terms with an African American culture as described by WEB DuBois’ double consciousness.

“Black being is completely bound up in untenable circumstances. Black people figured out how to make culture in free-fall”. -Arthur Jafa

The photographs and videos that Jafa’s included in his films present a critical yet abstracted scientific study of black visual-cultural production. Thematically, his films study black people as they are.

The feelings emoted out of black music are what he wants to produce visually.


From, “bell hooks and Arthur Jafa Discuss Transgression in Public Spaces at The New School”, Arthur Jafa APEX, 2013 Gavin Brown’s enterprise Video/Film single-channel video projection, color, sound

APEX, is an 800+ photo-collage of abstracted imagery of an undefined boundless concept of what blackness is.

It is his response to his idea of black cinema, the precedent to a large scale film of epic proportions setting itself apart as the complete opposite of mainstream Hollywood film. Jafa says, The mantra is really about trying to force people to think more deeply about what a black cinema might be, and what it might look like.”

The audio-visual features musical figures, as Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Michael Jackson, and Jimi Hendrix ; Animated caricatures such as Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat ; Sci-fi references such as the Xenomorph from Alien vs. Predator, Na’vi from Avatar, Maria from Metropolis, Hal 9000 from 2001 a Space Odyssey; deep sea creatures and microorganisms; and scenes of violence.

The track playing is Minus by Robert Hood, a Detroit Techno track in a minimal style, gives an aural tonality to the video, sounding like machinery. some sort. The undercurrent of black techno as the score adds to the scientific feel, like these images are Jafa’s way of creating a scientific study of black popular culture.

Love is The Message, The Message is Death

Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death 2016, single-channel video (color, sound), 7:30 minutes, courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

Love is the Message, The Message is Death, is a video-collage of imagery that continues the dialogue surrounding Jafa’s notions about black cinema using images in black popular culture. An evolved version of Apex, the video is a wide range display of blackness in media, highlighting emotion and movement. The 7-minute video weaves in and out familiar images of viral videos, news reports, historical Civil Rights protest footage, synchronized dance movements, outer space and more.

Many familiar faces in the video such as President Barack Obama, activist Angela Davis, artist Martine Syms, jazz musician Miles Davis, rappers Notorious B.I.G and Lauryn Hill appear for short moments.

Kanye West’s track from The Life of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam” is the score that plays the background. The musical-to-visual intonation is the backdrop where Jafa highlights the rise-and-fall emotional tension of the gospel with the uplifting rap-sing cadence of Kanye and Chance’s verses.

Jafa is aware of how much of this consists of ‘found footage’ from Youtube and elsewhere on the Internet, as the film is meant to give commentary on the accessibility of black cultural production.

Both of these video collages that came out of the visual archive notebook collection that Jafa collected for over 10 years. In less than 3 hours, Love is Message was completed. More than 80 percent of the film was already sequenced before Ultralight Beam was added.

Arthur Jafa, APEX grid, (2018)

In featured exhibitions, the images in APEX are displayed on a wall and in binders Jafa’s massive archive of images of black culture ephemera, he has since collected over the last 10+ years.

Since beginning this archive, he has thought about how the universal response the black music in society can be achieved through visuals.


The music video for JAY-Z’s title track 4:44 combines Arthur Jafa’s theoretical processes in one film. With help from his constituents from TNEG (Jafa’s film studio), cinematographers Malik Sayeed and Elisa Blount Moorheed add very significant directorial expertise to the video.

The radical changes in emotion. Like Apex and Love is The Message, this concept is ever-present and continues to evolve in 4:44.

The mixture of found footage displays a wide range of black people expressing pain or traumatic situations.

Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili act not only as emotional personifications of JAY Z and Beyonce dramatized story act but as an allegory of black love and the gut-wrenching pain and regret of an affair.

SP’s alien-like tutting and Okwui’s ghostly movements deepen the dreamlike nature of the video, which is later contrasted with displays of black expression via viral videos, This presents what’s going on the minds of Jafa as the director and JAY as the rapper, both storytellers, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

Arthur Jafa’s artistic perspective contributes to the growing movement called Afrosurrealism, which examines the broad continuum of individual life experiences that black people have. The movement examines how black people exist among a structured system after the torrential effects the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The feelings black people have been in metaphorical, mystical or abstract terms.

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The originator of Black Aesthetic Continual Theory. Crate-digging for samples & links. Moodboarding on the decks.