listen in on a phone call between virgil abloh and arthur jafa
For The Post Truth Truth Issue, the fashion visionary sat down to chat to Arthur Jafa about winning the Golden Lion, the experience of being black in America, and Kanye West.
Arthur Jafa has just won the Golden Lion, the highest award an artist can receive at the Venice Biennale, possibly the biggest stage an artist can exhibit their work on. The Golden Lion was awarded, in part, for The White Album, an eviscerating video work that delves into whiteness, racism and violence. The White Album follows another acclaimed video work, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, which also uses found footage to explore blackness in America, from creativity to police brutality.
Love Is The Message, among its bricolage of footage, prominently featured Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam on its soundtrack. At the time of the creation of Love Is The Message, Virgil Abloh was working as Kanye West’s creative director, and the two have remained friends and collaborators since. On the occasion of Arthur’s award, we got the two on the phone together to discuss …
Virgil Abloh: Hey what’s up, its Virgil, what’s good?
Arthur Jafa: How’s it going? Where are you? Chicago?
Yeah I’ve just got back from a week in Europe. It’s nearly August. Europe is slowing down.
That doesn’t mean you’re slowing down though. It’s so funny man, I was telling somebody recently, winning the Golden Lion in Venice, I don’t have a massive emotional relationship to it. It’s definitely not something I grew up dreaming about. But being in i-D, I was like “Oh shit, I must be onto something.”
To see yourself in i-D man, everything that you grew up idolising in those pages, and now someone has said, ‘You are that too’, that’s wild man.
Of course I realise the Golden Lion’s more important, structurally at least, but I definitely feel it more in my head than my body.
But you were never making your work to win a Golden Lion. In a world that’s made up of all these different constructs it’s actually the most authentic and pure expression when a work ends up in a space it was made with no regard for.
Love Is The Message wasn’t made for a gallery space. I made it for myself. I was gonna drop it on YouTube but my friends vetoed that. Six months later it premiered at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, and changed my life. I never would have envisioned presenting that work in the context of an art gallery. A year later, and I’m actually making a show for a gallery space. I’m like, ‘shit, I don’t know if this is gonna work in this context.’
It was a bit of a Hail Mary. The wheel pieces presented in the Venice Biennale were made for that second show at Gavin Brown’s. Ralph Rugoff, the curator of the Venice Biennale asked for them but he also wanted a video work – he had this concept that all the artists in the Biennale would present two aspects of their practice. So I showed the Big Wheels, sculptural things and a video, The White Album. Initially, they were interested in presenting some older video work. I was like, I’ve got this new thing I’m kind of tinkering with. In fact, The White Album was leaked two years ago, the germ of an idea, before being presented in a more fleshed out form at the Berkeley Museum. But even since then, it’s continued to evolve. The title even, is a bit of a joke.
How did the title come to be?
I had this new work and its got a lot of white people in it. A good friend was like, “Oh shit, the art world is going to love this, a new Arthur Jafa piece, and it’s about us.
I wanted to talk about community and how important your community is to your art practice?
There’s different aspects to it. Like you’re part of my community even though we might only be in the same city twice a year. Then there’s folk I’ve known continuously for 30 years. But I’m also making work for folk who, to a certain degree, are imagined. And this imagined community, I’m assuming knows Killer of Sheep, knows Storyboard P, knows Dr J. Which allows the work to not having to be constantly explaining itself, basically not having to be remedial. I’m always trying to be super specific, and that typically amounts to me making my shit as black as possible. While still refusing the notion that being black and being universal are mutually exclusive.
I’m sure in all your interviews you get called the black artist in quotation marks. That’s a context that confronts you and is placed on you, although not necessarily always in a harmful way. Do you feel that we’re in a place where the “black artist” is being defined differently compared to 10 years ago, or 20 years ago?
My friend, the brilliant artist John Akomfrah would say, when we first met, that he never wanted to be defined as a black artist, but at the same time he was a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective so… it’s complicated. I guess really it doesn’t matter what you call yourself as long as your shit is great. It seemed really important to me that John raised the banner of being a Black artist, just so we could explode any negative connotations that had.
The black aesthetic isn’t about fixed hierarchies or material value, it’s about how you treat material. It’s what you do with it, how you bend it. How you shape it. How you deform it. What you juxtapose it with. How one takes a “high” material like gold, and turns that into some Dookie chain shit. That’s asserting our own value. I’m into that.
One thing I love about your work is that it allows the black community to see art in ways they can relate to. When they see Love Is The Message, there’s an iconography there people understand. I often use the phrases Tourist and Purist to describe my approach to work. The purist knows everything about art history, every museum in every country and what’s going on across the world. And the tourist, in this context, well they know what a Dookie chain actually is.
A different audience generally means a different response. My brother was watching The White Album in LA with a friend, white, and she was looking at him the whole time, trying to see when he was laughing in case she laughed at something that was inappropriate.
I think this happens a lot in subcultures. There’s a space. Black people invent some new shit (like we always do). Everyone wants to see what’s going on. Eventually white people (or straight people) outnumber the black people (or gay people) and that changes what’s going on. If the ratio gets fucked up between people participating in the culture and folks just looking at the culture, then the space is compromised and has to be evacuated. This happens again and again. We haven’t really seen that in the art world yet because the ratio has been off from the start. It’s a challenge to make a thing with some capacity to shake people, to make them feel something, even when they don’t get it. With Love Is Message I anticipated that black people might be shook, but I never imagined so many other folks would be as well.
That’s what I think is unique about Love Is The Message. I remember hearing about the piece when I was working as Kanye’s creative director. Ultralight Beam ended up as the soundtrack to Love Is The Message but it’s not a music video context. It’s art. We hit these seminal moments where there’s a change and a shift in the understanding of what the black projected image is, and how powerfully it can be represented.
Kanye built a machine. It’s a black aesthetic machine. He’s feeding it, curating it. With Love Is The Message, I feel like I extended what he’d begun into the realm of the visual. But still in accordance with the methodology, the Jes Grew-ness of what they’d already created. What we’re seeing now are all these new formations. There’s this meta-author aspect to everything. That’s what I love about YouTube, so much of the dopest shit on YouTube doesn’t have an author. A lot of my video work involves taking different things and making them plausible together. Taking something with expressive capacity, and placing that next to a different thing with expressive capacity, selector – as John (Akomfrah) voiced it, “putting them in some sort of affective proximity to one another.” That’s what DJs do. They create juxtaposition that intensify how you experience givens.
I think one of the greatest contributions to black art is the invention of two turntables and a mixer.
It is the most important! Because it’s all about the treatment, never just the materials. When “we” were brought to the Americas “we” were Africans. Different countries, different ethnic groups, different families, but the slave ship is (as Fred Moten would put it) this generative machine that “mutated” us, that made us into “black people”. You’re chained next to a bunch of other motherfuckers and none of you had a choice. That’s a mix. Who we are came from that. A deformation becomes a formation. There’s magic in both this lack of self-determinacy and the constant struggle for self-determination too. Just being in the world, at one with the indeterminacy of the universe, being a product of it. That’s a really central aspect to being black and you see it in our creative work all the time.
Are you an optimist? Or a pessimist?
I’m a sceptic, first of all. I think only an optimist can be truly sceptic. And I’m an optimist, not the kind who thinks everything is gonna be fun, but the kind who thinks — how we get there may be painful, horrific even, but it’s gonna be dope. If you think about the black experience, the split between majesty and misery doesn’t exist, they are bound up together. Our circumstances, the context that produced us, crossing the sea, we all got wet, drenched. The question is, what you gonna do with your wetness? You gonna create a backstroke or a breaststroke? Maybe you gonna breath underwater. What makes us so powerful, what everyone’s arrested by, is how we’ve demonstrated, again and again, a capacity to not just survive but to thrive, in the most problematic circumstances; global capitalism, migrant crisis, eco disaster, white supremacy. It’s why blackness matters to everyone. Because we’re what the future looks like, that’s undeniable.
You’re preaching to the choir here. One of my favourite quotes of yours, you were talking about the barriers black artists face in the art world. And you made this reference to figure skating. A black figure skater can do a triple axel somersault and levitate off the ice, and they’ll give you an 8.45. But that’s still a launchpad for me and my community.
The first thing is getting in the game. Once we're in the game, we wanna master it. Once we've mastered it, we want to transform it. We bring all this surplus expressivity to whatever we do, that's what blackness is about. That's why everyone is mesmerised by it. And it's not anti-capitalist or pro-capitalist, it exists outside the logic of capitalism.
Black influence has created a new ecosystem, which can grow and support different types of life that we couldn’t before, like in the fashion industry for example.
I call that a black terra form, because its frightening! It’s the transformation of the cultural ecosystem, like you said. And it’s totally counter intuitive under capitalism. Doing a 360 before you dunk a ball is not efficient, but it’s how we rock. From slavery onwards, we’ve always resisted the logic of how the West structures the world.
We both have this similar story, we’re coming from the leftfield and fitting in this other space. You have your Golden Lion, I work for Louis Vuitton. How do our positions affect how we create? Is the Golden Lion going to affect how you approach cultural production?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit. These last six months, people who I couldn’t even get a conversation with 18 months ago, now they’re like, ‘It would be so cool to work with you!’ They’re reaching out. They’re trying to make sense of what I’m doing. All that’s ephemeral to me. It doesn’t change my relationship to the world, but it does change the world’s relationship to me. What I want is to continue attempting to make work that’s radically alienated from the current context. Since the Golden Lion, I definitely have more resources, more access, plus I’m much less interested in being accommodating. I’m trying to emerge, to actualise, to manifest something new, something that’ll reveal Love Is The Message to be the demo it always was.
It’s the trajectory: all of this energy you’ve put in already is going to push you into orbit.
The reason I feel so confident about where I’m at? This isn’t about me, I’m an emanation. When the west discovered African artefacts, it was like an atomic bomb going off. This is 100 years in the making, the fallout of African art and black aesthetics winding its way into the core of Western art practice. That’s why I’m excited about what I’m doing, because I see it in this wider context. I see that right now, black artists are rocking this shit. Everyone’s waking up to it and trying to work out the implications of it, but it’s undeniable that’s something happening.
The black artist is defining the present, showing this new form of expression in an old space that’s never seen anything like it before.
I like this quote from Barry Gordy of Motown. When asked if he made music for black people he replied that he made music for the consumers of black music. What he’s getting at, to cite again Fred Moten, is that “black people have a privileged relationship to blackness but we don’t own it. It’s not a proprietary relationship”. It’s not a proprietary relationship. Blackness is in and of itself a formation that’s continually coming into being, that’s offering new possibilities for the future. I always ask myself — why would anybody apart from black people care about this shit, be interested in black aesthetics? It’s because blackness isn’t just relevant to black people. It’s an ontological formation that’s seeking to understand the world. It’s about the possibility for a different way to occupy the earth, to exist in it.
Hopefully this conversation in i-D will be a stepping stone for others to stand on top off. That’s the best we can do.
Photography Mario Sorrenti.
Styling Alastair McKimm.
Hair Bob Recine for Rodin.
Make-up Kanako Takase at Streeters.
Nail technician Honey at Exposure NY using Dior.
Photography assistance Lars Beaulieu, Kotaro Kawashima, Javier Villegas and Chad Meyer.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich, Milton Dixon III and Yasmin Regisford.
Hair assistance Kabuto Okuzawa and Kazuhide Katahira.
Make-up assistance Kuma.
Production Katie Fash.
Production assistance Layla Néméjanksi and Adam Gowan.
Creative and casting consultant Ruba Abu-Nimah.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING