Arthur Jafa Talks 'Taxi Driver,' Being Called Anti-Black & Impostor Syndrome


Before Arthur Jafa became an art world sensation, he was a sought-after but under-the-radar filmmaker. He was the cinematographer for Daughters of the Dust, a 1991 film by his then wife, Julie Dash; for Spike Lee’s Crooklyn, in 1994; and, in the 2010s, for the music videos for Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky.” He worked under Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, codirected the video for Jay-Z’s “4:44,” and shot documentaries on subjects including Malcolm X and Audre Lorde.

Then, in 2016, at the age of 56, he was invited by the Hammer Museum to display a selection of items from his personal collection of historical and pop cultural images, amassed over decades and organized in hundreds of binders, as part of the museum’s “Made in L.A.” show. This was a few years after he had released a film essay titled Dreams Are Colder Than Death, which juxtaposed interviews of Black intellectuals with shots of outer space, nocturnal streetscapes, ocean surf, and artist Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouette works.

Jafa’s impulse to archive was also reflected in his breakout project, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, which opened at the gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem a few days after Donald Trump was elected president. Made up of rhythmically spliced footage from viral newsclips, police body cameras, civil rights marches, basketball games, and concerts set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” the 7-minute-30-second film is a multifaceted portrait of Blackness and racism in America that manages to be brutal, funny, and breathtaking all at once. The New York Times called it a “digital-age ‘Guernica’ ”; for 48 hours in June 2020, when the world was roiling in protest over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, 13 museums streamed the film on their websites.

© Arthur Jafa, Courtesy of the artist and 52 Walker, New York

One of Jafa’s works in progress, 2024.

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1960 to a middle-class family of educators, Jafa (pronounced jay-fa) was raised in the largely segregated South. The music of his youth often makes appearances in his videos: clips of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix are slowed down, distorted, and used to intense emotional effect. His work since Love Is the Message has evolved to include sculpture, installation, wallpaper, and painting, but his unique ability to manipulate and recontextualize found footage remains at the core of his practice. In 2019, Jafa won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for The White Album, a 30-minute film that weaves together his own intimate shots of gallerists and friends with a surrealistic computer-animated Iggy Pop and clips that include a clueless young white woman protesting allegations of racism, cyber goths dancing under a bridge, and Dylann Roof entering and exiting the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he murdered nine people during a Bible study.

This spring, Jafa will have two simultaneous exhibitions in New York City: a multimedia installation at 52 Walker, the David Zwirner space curated by senior director Ebony L. Haynes; and an untitled video at Gladstone Gallery, a détournement of key scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver that is sure to become a lightning rod. While putting the finishing touches on both shows, Jafa sat down for a conversation with the poet Simone White, whose oeuvre is similarly raw and unsparing. —Andrea Whittle

Simone White: Could you tell me about what you’ll be showing this spring?

Arthur Jafa: The 52 Walker exhibition is called “Black Power Tool and Die Trynig [sic].” It’s a sort of structure—a maze, basically. We call it the picture unit. You walk through it—it’s just another way to structure the presentation and sequencing of images, like a book or a film. I’m very interested in how you make a heterogeneous set of things occupy space in a way that doesn’t erase their individual specificity but that does create a sort of gestalt effect. It’s like post–Bitches Brew Miles Davis. I’m interested in that cacophony.

© Arthur Jafa, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, Photographed by Lance Brewer

Details from APEX GRID, 2018.

The words “die” and “death” often reappear in the titles of your work.

There is something obsessive about it, for sure. My brother laughed when I told him about this one. He was like, “You hadn’t had a death title in a while!” [Laughs] I mean, my first doc was called Dreams Are Colder Than Death, which was a play on Fassbinder’s film Love Is Colder Than Death. And then, of course, I did Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. And the one essay I’ve written, my sort of manifesto, is called My Black Death. The big term that everyone likes to use now is “the precarity of Black life,” so it’s a little like, what happens when you become a machine that consumes or absorbs precarity, or presumes precarity? To me, a piece is not finished unless it has a title. It’s almost like conjuring. If you don’t crack the code of the title, then the work can’t fully manifest.

In some ways, the primary power of your work is not simply the pain or exhaustion of Black trauma but also the ways in which the pain coexists with comedic or tongue-in-cheek ways of relating to everyday life.

I’ve had this ongoing discussion with [the poet and scholar] Fred Moten. Fred has said that he thinks that trauma, death, and horror are a fundamental context out of which Blackness evolves and emerges, but that Blackness is not in itself fundamentally a product of horror. Now, I don’t agree with that. If you put together the equation—African people enslaved and transported to the Americas—I don’t think there’s any way you can produce us, meaning Black people, without that horror. If a deity said, “Hey, look, you can snap your fingers and every horrible thing that ever happened to a Black person would have not happened,” we would, by that very same gesture, be erasing ourselves because there’s no way to produce us outside of this equation of horror. And there’s something profoundly paradoxical about that. I’ve even written before something to the effect that even though, on the one hand, we’re all moving toward the transcendence of these white supremacist and racialized structures, at the same time a move toward that is a move toward erasing the very things that bind us together as a community. At the very core of being Black is a discrepancy between circumstances that insisted, demanded, and disciplined us to understand ourselves as not human—and yet, despite all of that, we still were able to retain, insist, and reinforce our humanity. It’s what distinguishes Black people from African people.

© Arthur Jafa, Courtesy of the artist, Photographed by Ander Sune Berg

An installation view of ____ Array, 2020, at Jafa’s 2021 solo show “MAGNUMB,” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humblebæk, Denmark.

I’d like to talk about the video you’re debuting at Gladstone.

The film Taxi Driver always had a really big impact on me. I was mesmerized by it, but it always struck me as a racist film. I have a compulsion to, as I say, force a thing to show its true face. In the film, when Travis Bickle [the titular taxi driver, played by Robert De Niro] goes to rescue Iris [the child prostitute played by Jodie Foster], everyone holding her captive in that scene is white. But I read once that in Paul Schrader’s original script, they were all Black. But somebody said, “No, we can’t do this.” Because Black folks would have rioted. But when you see the film, you feel that ethos. The move to make the pimp character white doesn’t correct the central thesis of the film, about his relationship to Blackness and Black men in particular. I never bought Harvey Keitel’s rendering of the pimp. It always seemed like a joke. But earlier in the film, there’s a shot that’s cut into a scene in a diner of two Black pimps, and you see who Keitel’s character should have been. He should have been one of these cats. I mean, they have real gravitas; they’re clearly not actors. They are two actual pimps who just hung around the location where they were shooting. I was fascinated with the question of, how would you transpose these guys into the roles for which they were intended? It’s twisted, the whole idea of wanting to create a scene where Black people are being murdered, but for me it has something to do with seeing the true face of the thing. The film focuses so much on Travis’s interiority, so one of the things I did was open up the Black pimps’ interiority.

What is it about revisiting that scene at the end of Taxi Driver that is illuminating for you?

I don’t know if I would use the word “illuminating.” There’s a certain presumption that Black artists, particularly conscious or intentional Black artists, are going to do the uplift thing. I don’t do the uplift thing. I’m definitely an undertaker. I’m like, Let’s go down. I’m interested in where the bodies are buried. I’m genuinely drawn to the darkness, to the shadow, and I’ve accepted it. It really comes down to the complexity of freedom, the problem of choice. I keep saying I’m a libertine, and people keep not hearing me. That doesn’t mean I’m not a principled person. But I’m not a moralist. I’m interested in what it means to make choices in this world and to live with the consequences of those choices. I’m not interested in anybody dictating what I do. And as much as I love Black people, I’m also not interested in Black people dictating what I do. I once had a conversation with the artist Faith Icecold. I don’t know if you ever saw that conversation.

Arthur Jafa, “Untitled,” 2024, film still. © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

Yeah, I did.

They said I was a neoliberal and anti-Black. I am fairly confident that I’m not anti-Black, but I can understand why a person might come to certain conclusions about me, because the way my understanding of Blackness is configured is maybe a little atypical, a little unapologetic. I know that some will question the impulse to, as is the case with this work, remake the thing so that all the Black people get killed. It’s about keeping it real. Black people’s primary superpower, historically, has been our ability to keep it real. Taxi Driver was a response to blaxploitation films, which was the moment when Black masculinity was put in people’s faces in an unprecedented way, starting with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song straight through to Shaft, Super Fly, and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off. All these films were a tsunami of Black masculinity. And Taxi Driver was an attempt to defuse it, if not destroy it. That doesn’t diminish my attraction to or appreciation of the film.

You’ve talked about how your success came in the middle of your life, as Dante would say.

Middle of my life? Jesus, I hope so! The last quarter, maybe.

Jafa, wearing his own T-shirt and jewelry.

You’re supposed to live to be 105! One of the things that your practice gives me is a chance to think about, what does one do with the opportunity that institutional attention will give you? Once an institution sets its gaze upon you, how do you operate inside your artistic impulses? Because in my understanding, that’s going to bend or shape your work, to a certain degree.

Yeah, it does. For a long time, I was stuck in the modality of imagining. I spent a lot of time conceptualizing. My biggest Achilles’ heel was that once I worked out something in my head, I didn’t even feel the necessity to make it. I always got off on ideas. And the thing about ideas is they’re uncompromised. So what’s been challenging to me is to try to function in the space of actualization, but with the same intent to be unconstrained. I said to [the gallerist] Gavin Brown at one point, “I’ll always see myself as a failure when I look in the mirror because I spent the larger part of my life being a failure and understanding myself as such.” I’m not even sure if 30 years of success will supplant the fundamental understanding I have of myself as not being a success. When I was growing up, success to me was Michael Jackson or Prince. I felt like I was a consumer of dope books, movies, comic books, and art. I felt like I had a very sophisticated appreciation, but those were people who existed “over there.” It’s been very complicated for me to realize that I’m a producer. I’m constantly having this conversation with my son. I’m like, “This shit is not easy for me.” I don’t know if it was easy for anybody, but it used to seem like they just got up and did it. I feel like a charlatan sometimes, that I’m just getting away with shit.

What?!

The level of shit is so diminished now, compared to the ’60s and ’70s. I’m not saying there’s not great art being made. But there’s something to have been incubated in, to have emerged in, as a very young person in the ’60s—I missed it. I missed the ’60s because I was an infant! But you still feel the energy. I still feel like I remember my parents taking me to see James Brown when I was 3 or 4 years old. And I can’t tell you what it looked like at all, or even what it sounded like. But I remember the intensity of it on a haptic level. I have a memory of how it felt. That’s why I’m always going back to the music. I want my shit to function on the level of Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get there. If you had asked me this 15 years ago, I would have been like, I’m definitely not gonna get there. Now I’m like, is it possible? Am I within striking distance? I don’t know. I can kind of see it in my head.

A poster for Jafa’s exhibition at 52 Walker.

Corutesy of the artist and 52 Walker, New York.

Grooming by Ren Nobuko for Clarins at Bridge Artists. Set Design by Julia Wagner at Second Name Agency. Producer: Julia Levin at Art Partner; Photo Assistant: Zack Forsyth; Digital Technician: Mike Skigen; Retouching: May Six Studio.



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