The question of how images feed back on each other is one of the central themes of the exhibition, A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions. Arthur Jafa is the main artist featured in an exhibition that spans centuries and registers with a furious sense of purpose and a relentless determination to look into the bleakest corners of American life and history. Jafa’s work is encompassing both thematically and formally. The exhibition presents videos, photographs, works on fabric, and quasi-sculptural renderings of photographic and digital images. One is tempted to use the word “immersive” to describe the show, but that seems inaccurate, “implicating” somehow more accurately reflects the experience.
What does the use of that term mean? Perhaps something of its significance can be found in a statement by Jafa that appears on one of the wall texts in the first room of the show. He is quoted as saying the following, “if you point a camera at a Black person, on a psychoanalytic level it functions as a White gaze … it doesn’t matter if a Black person is behind the camera or not.” Whole exhibitions could be constructed around this quotation alone. Certainly, there is a great degree of truth in it, though as scholars including Robin D.G. Kelley and Deborah Willis, whose powerful history, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, chronicles the evolution of images of Black people produced by Black photographers from 1840 to the present, the relationship of Black identity and photography has numerous dimensions, some liberatory – quite literally in that Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass often used photographic images of Blacks to promote abolitionist efforts – some considerably less so. The real significance of Jafa’s quote, for the purposes of the exhibition, seems in some ways to be the way it reaches through experience into wider narratives of history: every object has a history, and most of that history is hidden. Every individual must make some kind of reckoning with these circumstances if one seeks to truly understand the times in which one lives. Images can be used to free, but also to enslave. Moving between the videos and photographs in the first room, the interplay of historical circumstance and visual representation is palpable. The videos, entitled, “Mix 1-4_Constantly Evolving”, are true to the title, showing images from video games, musical performances and other sources, spanning eras and aesthetics. One sees clips from contemporary web comedies, Bootsy Collins and his band on stage in their finery and pomp, the whole of Allen Gorg’s wrenching 1967 documentary, The Savages, about Black life in West Venice, California, a breathtakingly shot video focussing on Black rodeo riders by Kahlil Joseph evoking the legacy of performers like Bill Pickett in the construction of the mythos of the American west, and, in the final room, manifestations of whiteness and white anxiety that simply chill the blood. Stereotypes, of course are presented, but they are also shown for what they are: constructions of a system of white supremacist power that seeks to control the terms on which Black representation is permissible.
Videostill / video still
Video, 8’12’’, Farbe, Ton / video, 8’12’’,color,
Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown´s
Enterprise, New York City, Rome
Perhaps one might call Jafa’s “Apex” (2013) the centrepiece of the exhibition. The work is an 8 minute flurry of images of cultural figures and historical subjects. Accompanied by a driving electronic soundtrack, the blizzard of images of jazz legends, indigenous practices, rock stars, appalling violence, moments of heroism and suffering has an intense richness, to be sure, but, for me, the rapidity of the flow of images somehow cut against their power. One of the greatest virtues of the “Constantly Evolving” works was their relatively slow pace. The viewer could dwell in them and allow context to drive their significance more deeply into the spirit. Seen in their presence, “Apex” felt somewhat perfunctory by comparison. Throughout the show, Jafa’s works are displayed alongside photographs by Ming Smith depicting famous and obscure Black subjects. Smith’s work along with a number of haunting images by Frida Orupabo, as well as Missylanyus testify to Jafa’s embracing aesthetic. A single review, much like a single visit, hardly does the show justice, and it is a show that demands both metaphorical and material justice.