liquid blackness 2016 research project on Arthur Jafa: introduction
In April 2016, the liquid blackness research group invited filmmaker and visual artist Arthur Jafa to show his essay film Dreams are colder than Death (2013) as part of the Special Event for the Conference for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Atlanta, GA. Titled, “Civil Encounters with Black Lives: Can Blackness be Loved?,” the screening and panel discussion with Jafa, professor Kara Keeling, and professor George Yancy, facilitated by professor Alessandra Raengo, took place at Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights in order to create a productive tension between the narrative of social progress promoted by the Center and the more probing questions posed by Jafa’s film. Dreams, in fact, begins as a lyrical meditation on the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech but quickly asks: “what is the concept of blackness? Where did it come from? What does it mean for people of color living in America today?”
Within a complex tapestry of movement across scale from the quotidian to the cosmic, the minute to deep space, the voices of some of the most powerful contemporary thinkers and creatives in black studies and the black arts today engage in a meditation on the ontology of blackness and its relationship to life, death, and the concept of the human in the context of the afterlife of slavery. They collectively ask, what is the ontology of black lives when they are so thoroughly wrapped in an atmospheric anti-blackness? Ultimately, through the words of Fred Moten, the film poses the question of the possibility to love black people and what it might mean to commit to blackness against fantasies of flight.
Dreams turned out to be a pivotal work in Arthur Jafa’s career. It is, to date, his most heavily “footnoted” film in the sense that it openly and directly references scholarly conversations at the time. It performed a sustained theoretical intervention in the discourse on black ontology, on par with Jafa’s previous influential writings on film and art history. It also contributed to the image-archive that Jafa has so effectively activated in APEX redacted (2013), which he had presented just a few months earlier for Flux Night 2015: Dream in Atlanta—curated by Nato Thompson, with Elissa Blount Moorhead and Rashida Bumbra—and even earlier, in an unfinished form at the Cinematic Migration Symposium organized by Renée Green in 2013 at MIT to honor the work of John Akomfrah. Additionally, Dreams cemented his multi-pronged collaboration with Kahlil Joseph who co-produced and partly shot the film and who, years later, featured some of the same as well as additional “Specialists” in his BLKNWS (2018-ongoing). Importantly, Dreams signals the transition to a different mode of working, less reliant on original footage and more on Jafa’s long-standing archival impulse (see his Notebooks at made in la 2016: a, the, though, only, Hammer Museum, curated by Aram Moshayedi and Hamza Walker) which, in 2016, expressed Love is the Message, the Message is Death. At the SCMS Special Event, in fact, and again during a dedicated talk for GSU students about “strategies for a black aesthetics” (see video here), Jafa decided to share an unfinished, and still untitled, version of Love is the Message. We are grateful for this generosity, and we have been following with great interest the turn(s) that Jafa’s career has taken since then.
Please see this dedicated page for a summary of the most salient moments in Jafa’s career since his 2016 GSU visit, the official debut of Love is the Message, The Message is Death later that year at Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem (November 12, 2016), and his solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions the following summer (June 8 – Sept 10, 2017).
 Co-chaired by Alessandra Raengo, Department of Communication, GSU, and Matthew Bernstein, chair of the Film and Media Studies Department at Emory University.
 Jafa, Arthur, “My Black Death,” in Everything but the burden: what white people are taking from Black culture, ed. Greg Tate (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 245-257.
About the Film
Dreams are Colder than Death is an experimental documentary/essay film that leverages a reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech,” to pose more fundamental and pressing questions: “what is the concept of blackness? Where did it come from? What does it mean for people of color living in America today?”
Woven together with lyrical slow motion images of ordinary black people mostly in outdoor spaces, images of water and cosmological images of deep space, the voices of some of the most powerful contemporary thinkers and artists in black studies and black arts engage in a meditation on the ontology of blackness and its relationship to life, death, and the concept of the human in the context of the “afterlife of slavery.” Ultimately, through the word of Fred Moten, the film poses the question of the possibility to love black people as well as what it might mean to commit to blackness against fantasies of flight.
About the Filmmaker
Arthur Jafa is an acclaimed filmmaker and artist based in New York. He is a crucial voice in a lineage of artists and filmmakers particularly concerned with the creation of a black aesthetics that liquid blackness has been studying since its inception in Fall 2013 when it co-hosted the L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black American Cinema film series with Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies.
Since his groundbreaking work as the acclaimed cinematographer of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), a film where he experimented with the possibility of instituting a specifically black aesthetic inspired by the cadence and the form of free jazz and black vocal intonation—what he calls a “black visual intonation”—Jafa has worked on Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), John Akomfrah’s Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1995), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), among many others.
Concurrent with his filmmaking practice, Jafa has also worked as a conceptual artist. Turning more intensely towards installation practice, Jafa has been relentlessly researching the possibility of creating an authentically black visual aesthetics, which he models after the centrality of black music in American culture and life. Jafa is inspired in this quest by the way black musicians focused their collective genius toward operating within very specific constraints. Similarly, a black visual aesthetics for Jafa might become available when every technological, aesthetic, and methodological protocol used by dominant cinema is challenged and adapted to the specific socio-cultural conditions of American black life. Since the late 1990s, his work, research, and writing have focused on this possibility.
Jafa’s work was part of Okwui Enwezor’s Mirror’s Edge, which opened at the BildMusset, the University of Umeå in Sweden and traveled to the Vancouver Art Gallery, Canada; Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy; and Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland (1999). He has shown at Artists Space, New York (1999); Black Box, CCAC Institute, Oakland (2000); Media City, Seoul (2000); and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2001). His work was included in Kara Walker’s exhibition Ruffneck Constructivists at the ICA Philadelphia and has been selected for the 2016 Made in L.A. Biennial at the Hammer Museum. In 2015, he presented APEX redacted, a public video installation for Flux Night in Atlanta.
Arthur Jafa’s Talks and Presentations on Youtube
Keeling, Kara. “Electric Feel.” Cultural Studies 28, no. 1 (January 2014): 49. doi:10.1080/09502386.2013.779735.
———. “”Getto Heaven: Set It Off and the Valorization of the Black Lesbian Butch-Femme Sociality.” Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research 33, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 59–63.
———. “‘In the Interval’: Frantz Fanon and the ‘Problems’ of Visual Representation.” Qui Parle: Literature, Philosophy, Visual Arts, History 13, no. 2 (2003 Spring-Summer 2003): 91–117.
———. “Looking for M—: Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibility, and Poetry from the Future.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, no. 4 (2009): 565.
Yancy, George. “African-American Philosophy: Through the Lens of Socio-Existential Struggle.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 37, no. 5 (June 1, 2011): 551–74.
Yancy, G. (with Joy James). “Black Lives: Between Grief and Action” in The Stone (The New York Times), December 22, 2014. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/black-lives-between-grief-and-action/?_r=1>
Yancy, George. “Elevators, Social Spaces and Racism A Philosophical Analysis.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 34, no. 8 (October 1, 2008): 843–76.
Yancy, George. “Introduction: Black Philosophy and the Crucible of Lived History.” The Black Scholar, 2013.
Yancy, G. “Introduction: Of Embodiment And Racialization,” Knowledge Cultures, Vol. 3 (1), 2015, special issue on the theme of racial embodiment. (Waiting for ILL)
Yancy, G. “Through the Crucible of Pain and Suffering: African American Philosophy as a Gift and the Countering of the Western Philosophical Metanarrative,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 47, No. 11 (Oct, 2015): 1143-1159.
Yancy, G. “White Suturing, Black Bodies, and the Myth of a Post-Racial America,” in ARTS/The Arts in Religion and Theological Studies, Vol. 26, no. 2 (March 2015). <https://theoartsonline.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/white-suturing-black-bodies-and-the-myth-of-a-post-racial-america/>
Yancy, George, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Charles Johnson. “Interpretative Profiles on Charles Johnson’s Reflections on Trayvon Martin: A Dialogue between George Yancy, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Charles Johnson.” Western Journal of Black Studies 38, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 1.
Arthur Jafa Bibliography
Jafa, Arthur. “69” In Black popular culture/ A Project by Michele Wallace. 249-254. Edited by Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992.
Jafa, Arthur. “Black Visual Intonation” in The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, 264-268. Edited by Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998
Jafa, Arthur. “My Black Death” In Everything but the burden: what white people are taking from Black culture, 245-257. Edited by Greg Tate. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
Jafa, Arthur. “La Venus Negre” Artforum International Vol. 30, no. 5 January (1992): 90-93
Hessli, Peter interview with Arthur Jafa. “The Notion of Treatment: Black Aesthetics and Film” Diss. In Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, 12-18 and 226. Edited by Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines and Charles Musser. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2001
Marshall, Kerry James, Terrie Sultan, and Arthur Jafa. Kerry James Marshall. n.p.: New York : Harry N. Abrams, 2000
Jafa, Arthur. “Like Rashomon but Different: The New Black Cinema” Artforum International Vol. 31, no. 10 Summer (1993)
Arthur Jafa Filmography
Theoretical Frame: Afro-pessimism
Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and social death: A comparative study, Harvard University Press.
Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe. An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Hartman, S. V. and F. B. Wilderson, III (2003). “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 183-201.
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. U of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Moten, Fred. “The Case of Blackness.” Criticism 50, no. 2 (2008): 177-218.
Sexton, Jared. “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery.” Social Text 28, no. 2 (2010): 31-56.
Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of Us Antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.
Sexton, Jared. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions 5 (2011): 1-47.
Moten, Fred. “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (September 21, 2013 2013): 737-80.
Moten, Fred. “The Subprime and the Beautiful.” African Identities 11, no. 2 (2013): 237-45.
R.L. (2013) Wanderings of the Slave: Black Life and Social Death. Mute
Holland, S. P. (2000). Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity, Duke University Press.
Castronovo, R. (2000). “Political Necrophilia.” boundary 2 27(2): 114-148.
Russ Castronovo. Necro citizenship: Death, eroticism, and the public sphere in the nineteenth-century United States. Duke University Press, 2001.
Mbembe, A. (2003). “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.
JanMohamed, A. R. (2005). The death-bound-subject: Richard Wright’s archaeology of death. Duke University Press, Durham N.C.
Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003)
Representations 113, no. 1 (2011)
African Identities 11, no. 2 (2013) – “Cedric J. Robinson: Radical Historiography, Black Ontology, and Freedom”
The Black Scholar 44 (Summer 2014)
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 21, no. 2-3 (2015)
Rhizomes, 29 (2016) – “Black Holes: Afro-Pessimism, blackness and the discourses of Modernity”
Theoretical Frame: Sensitometry