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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.[1] 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.[2] 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).


[1] Co-chaired by Alessandra Raengo, Department of Communication, GSU, and Matthew Bernstein, chair of the Film and Media Studies Department at Emory University.

[2] 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 in Conversation: Strategies for a black aesthetics from liquid blackness on Vimeo.

Arthur Jafa’s Talks and Presentations on Youtube

Reelblack. “On Advancing A Black Aesthetic” Conversation between Arthur Jafa and Hans L. Charles. 2014 Blackstar Film Festival. Online video clip. Youtube. YouTube, 26 Oct. 2015.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7Qmy6wtEOo (Approx. Length: 22min)
The New School. “bell hooks and Arthur Jafa Discuss Transgression in Public Spaces at The New School” The New School for Liberal Arts, New York Youtube. Youtube, 16, Oct. 2014.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fe-7ILSKSog (Approx. Length 1hr 23min)
MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology. “Arthur Jafa, APEX_TNEG, February 25, 2013” Experiments in Thinking, Action, and Form: Cinematic Migrations Seminar. Youtube. Youtube 20, Jan 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUBm2_v5RUw (Approx. Length 1hr 50min)
MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology. “Laura Marks, Arthur Jafa, Cinematic Migrations, March 7, 2014” Youtube. Youtube 20, Jan. 2016
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SW9Tu_Ga1N4 (Approx. Length: 1hr 13min. Starts at 1:15:00)
Deebeezy’s Channel. “Arthur Jafa on Michael Jackson” After the Dance: Conversations on Michael Jackson’s Black America. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York June 5, 2010. Youtube. Youtube 6, June 2010
Arthur Jafa on Michael Jackson as Self-Loather, Shape Shifter & Classically Black (Length: 7min 31 sec)
Arthur Jafa on The Impact of Michael Jackson’s Isolation From the Black Community (Length: 4min 25 sec)
Jada Nycole. “Arthur Jafa” Arthur Jafa visits Spelman College. Introduced by Aku Kadogo with Spelman’s Collaborative Arts Class. Atlanta, Georgia Youtube. Youtube 5, Oct. 2015
Part 1 (Length: 9m 13 sec)
Part 2 (Length: 9m 13 sec)
Part 3 (Length: 9m 14 sec)
Part 4 (Length: 9m 13 sec)
Part 5 (Length: 9m 13 sec)
Part 6 (Length: 5m 25 sec)

Selected Bibliographies

Kara Keeling

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.

George Yancy

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).

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

APEX redacted  
APEX redacted is a rapid—fire collage of hundreds of images that play with the synapses in your brain. Jumping from images of 60s revolutionaries to aliens to female body parts as the pulse of Robert Hood’s “Minus” builds to a climax, it came off to me as a manifesto for the TNEG aesthetic. The visual equivalent of a Funkadelic album it is audacious and uncompromising. 2015
TNEG projects  
Sharifa 2015
Dreams are Colder Than Death 2014
New Soul Rebel: Adrian Young 2014
Deshotten 1.0 2009
Tree 1999
Smile 1996
Considerations 1982
Happy Birthday, Marsha! (Short) (post-production) 2016
In The Morning 2014
Florida Water 2014
Dreams Are Colder Than Death (Documentary) 2014
Head and Hands: My Black Angel (Short) 2013
Nine for IX (TV Series documentary) (1 episode) 2013
— Venus vs. (2013) (2013)
Independent Lens (TV Series documentary) (1 episode) 2013
— Soul Food Junkies (2013) (2013)
The Start Up (TV Movie) 2013
Roomieloverfriends (TV Series) 2012
Shadows of Liberty (Documentary) 2012
William Lynch: Bible Stories (Short) 2009
Meet the Eye (Short) 2009
AfterLife (Short) 2007
Conakry Kas (Documentary) 2004
Bamako Sigi-Kan (Documentary) 2003
I Am Ali (Short) 2002
American Experience (TV Series documentary) (2 episodes) 1991—2001
— Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (2001) … (as Arthur Jafa Fielder) (2001)
— The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry (1991) (1991)
American Masters (TV Series documentary) (1 episode) 1996
— Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice (1996) (1996)
W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices (Documentary) 1996
Rouch in Reverse (Documentary) 1995
A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde (Documentary) 1995
Crooklyn 1994
The Darker Side of Black (Documentary) 1994
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (Documentary) 1993
Daughters of the Dust 1991
Camera and Electrical Department  
Selma (second unit: additional photography) 2014
Africa Unite: A Celebration of Bob Marley’s 60th Birthday (Documentary) (cinematographer) 2008
Flag Wars (Documentary) (additional camera operator) 2003
Just Married (director of photography: second unit) 2003
Frailty (director of photography: second unit – uncredited) 2001
Eyes Wide Shut (cinematographer: second unit – as Arthur Jaffa) 1999
Malcolm X (director of photography: second unit – as Arthur Jafa Fielder) 1992
Daughters of the Dust (camera operator) 1991
My Brother’s Wedding (first assistant camera – as A.J. Fielder) 1983
In The Morning (producer) 2014
Dreams Are Colder Than Death (Documentary) (producer) 2009
William Lynch: Bible Stories (Short) (co-producer) 1997
Black America: Facing the Millennium (TV Movie documentary) (producer) 1991
Daughters of the Dust (producer) 1991
Dreams Are Colder Than Death (Documentary) 2014
Slowly This (Short) 1995
Flag Wars (Documentary) (visual advisor)  
Fahrenheit 9/11 (Documentary) (thanks) 2004
Spirits of Rebellion: Black Film at UCLA (Video documentary) 2011
Music Videos  
“Until” Artist: Cassandra Wilson, with Isaach de Bankole (Dir. and D.P) 1995

Theoretical Frame: Afro-pessimism

Main Bibliography

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.


Special Issues

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

Main Bibliography

Akomfrah, John. “Digitopia and the Spectres of Diaspora.” Journal of Media Practice 11, no. 1 (March 2010): 21–29. doi:10.1386/jmpr.11.1.21/1.
Giard, François, and Matthieu J. Guitton. “Beauty or Realism: The Dimensions of Skin from Cognitive Sciences to Computer Graphics.” Computers in Human Behavior 26 (January 1, 2010): 1748–52.
Higgins, Scott. “A New Colour Consciousness Colour in the Digital Age.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 9, no. 4 (December 1, 2003): 60–76.
Pozo, Diana. “Water Color: Radical Color Aesthetics in Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.” New Review of Film & Television Studies 11, no. 4 (December 2013): 424.
Roth, Lorna. “Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity” Canadian Journal of Communication [Online], Volume 34 Number 1 (28 March 2009)
Williams, David E. “Street Knowledge.” American Cinematographer 96, no. 9 (September 2015): 38–55.
Winston, Brian. 1985. “A Whole Technology of Dyeing: A Note on Ideology and the Apparatus of the Chromatic Moving Image”. Daedalus 114 (4). The MIT Press: 105–23.
Read, Paul. “‘Unnatural Colours’: An Introduction to Colouring Techniques in Silent Era Movies.” Film History 21, no. 1 (March 2009): 9–46.