The art of the black struggle, 90 years on from MLK’s birth

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day we look at Arthur Jafa’s masterful take on contemporary race relations
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Installation view of Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) by Arthur Jafa. From 30,000 Years of Art
Installation view of Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) by Arthur Jafa. From 30,000 Years of Art

Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered not only for his actions, but also his words. Few public orations are as famous as Dr King’s 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Yet, just as race relations in the United States weren’t exactly settled after the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, so texts, pictures and art in general reflecting the African-American struggle needs to be updated and remade to reflect the changing times.

Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, a 2016 video by the American artist Arthur Jafa is one such contemporary work that touches on MLK, but also looks forward.

“In a meticulously choreographed cinematographic edit, Jafa combines found video footage with a soundtrack of Kanye West’s 2016 song Ultralight Beam to create a seven minute-long masterpiece,” we explain in our book 30,000 Years of Art.

 

Installation view of Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) by Arthur Jafa. From 30,000 Years of Art
Installation view of Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) by Arthur Jafa. From 30,000 Years of Art

“As the gospel-like tune swells and wanes, images flow in a continuous sequence, taking the viewer through the gamut of human emotion. From a YouTube clip of a teenager singing ‘I been dreamin’, I been dreamin’’, which cuts to historic footage of Martin Luther King Jr., or a video of police violence against black citizens that segues into an amazing basketball dunk, Jafa’s moving images evoke the power, beauty and nuanced complexity of black culture in the United States – distilled in a question to camera posed by the actress Amandla Stenberg: ‘What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we loved black culture?’

“The work was on show for the first time as Barack Obama left office and Donald Trump was inaugurated – a timely moment to revisit the history of the African-American struggle. Critical of black representation in mainstream media, but underscoring the ubiquity of black music, dance and bodily presence in contemporary society, this compilation video depicts black life bluntly and at its fullest.

“Jafa has overlapping practices as a film director and cinematographer as well as a visual artist, through all of which he probes ways in which black cinema might manifest itself today.”

 

30,000 Years of Art
30,000 Years of Art

The work is featured in our newly updated version of 30,000 Years of Art. Brought completely up to date for this revised edition and now available in a compact new format, this new edition of Phaidon's groundbreaking book presents art differently from all other compendia by revealing the huge diversity – or in many cases, the similarity – of artistic achievements around the globe.

Images of more than 600 works from all periods and regions are arranged in chronological order, each with a short text that puts the work in critical context and explains its contribution to the development of art history. Buy a copy of 30,000 Years of Art here.


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