HOLDING BLACKNESS IN SUSPENSION: THE FILMS OF KAHLIL JOSEPH
About Kahlil Joseph
Kahlil Joseph has made a number of beautifully-shot short films in collaboration with some of the most respected, politically engaged and forward-thinking hip hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar, and FKA Twigs, as well as indie bands such as Arcade Fire. Joseph, who is considered one of the most important hip hop video directors, is also one of the seven filmmakers who directed with Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade He is also the director of the artist collective What Matters Most which pursues a similar surreal aesthetics as a way to reimagine more expansive possibilities for blackness.
Joseph’s short film “Until the Quiet Comes” for Flying Lotus received widespread critical acclaim. The film won the ‘Grand Jury Prize’ for Short Films at Sundance Film Festival 2012 and ‘Video of the Year’ at the UKMVAs 2013. It was also featured in the exhibition eMERGING: Visual Art & Music in a Post-Hip-Hop Era curated by James Bartlett for the MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, NY and, most importantly in the Ruffneck Constructivists exhibit for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia curated by world renown contemporary silhouette artist Kara Walker. This past summer he had his first solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience, which included a 2-screen video installation titled m.A.A.d.
Joseph often refers to his films as “a new kind of music film and not just […] film about music.” Joseph’s work has been screened on concerts stages for thousands of fans at Kendrick Lamar/Kanye West concerts, at both the Sundance and Toronto International Film festivals, and on MTV. Viewers can recognize Joseph’s films across these dramatically different cultural spaces through their surreal and dreamlike organization, rich textures and moody cinematography, and an unwavering commitment to exploring the details of black lives on screen. The characters in Joseph’s films appear suspended between extremes: in “Until the Quiet Comes.” the dancer Storyboard P’s choreography is both human and robotic; in “Video Girl,” a man on death row moves wildly just before being restrained for lethal injection. His videos offer an opportunity to consider the moving image, public space, and race at the intersection of hip-hop, blackness, cinema, collectivity, and black spaces. Furthermore, Joseph’s work visualizes liquid blackness’s founding interest in finding fluidity in the expression of blackness in the photographic/cinematic image. His unique artistic and social vision had lead to a dynamic career. He has had success working individually and as part of collaborative practices, which includes collaborations with an established earlier generation of black filmmakers and scholars; he participates in both the high and popular art realms; and his content moves between the universal concerns of life and death and the particularities of urban space.
Joseph is the youngest in a lineage of artists and filmmakers particularly concerned with the definition of a black aesthetics, which 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. Joseph has also collaborated with internationally acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker Arthur Jafa on an extraordinary documentary/essay film titled Dreams are Colder than Death.
A screening of Joseph’s work provides thematic and film historical continuity between Dreams Are Colder than Death and previous liquid blackness projects about the imbrication between aesthetics and politics.
Our intention to bring Joseph to campus in Fall 2016, therefore, is the culmination of a set of both long-term short-term research projects. This includes: our research on experimentations with an uncompromising black film aesthetics that began with the L.A. Rebellion films, and later elaborated with research on Larry Clark’s Passing Through (1977); our interest in artists’ collectives; and our continued preoccupation with pursuing expansive expressive possibilities for blackness.
FKA Twigs – Video Girl
Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Kahlil Joseph is an artist of an extraordinary sensitivity. His films have visionary qualities that we attempted to describe with the idea of “holding blackness in suspension.” For us, this is an ethical move that has become increasingly urgent especially at this time when the troubling ways the vision of black death is constantly modulated across our highly networked contemporary media landscape. Joseph’s work offers to the opportunity to see black people exist, feel and move otherwise. Their moves and their destiny are never predetermined. Rather, they unfold in unexpected (i.e. suspenseful) ways.
By relying on its architectural meaning, whereby suspension is “the technique of dispersing a structure’s mass across multiple grounding positions,” to make a structure “light” because of how its material elements are held in tension, “holding blackness in suspension” is a way to keep it philosophically safe. It also means that blackness is the very “thing” we put it at the center of our conversations, theoretical approaches, and ethical concerns.
“Suspension” therefore offers a concrete way to seriously interrogate the discrepancy between popular culture’s unwavering obsession with blackness and the continued devaluation of black lives. Thus, we “hold blackness in suspension” to leverage the already pervasive mobility of blackness apart and away from the black body in contemporary culture in order to ground an ethical obligation toward the black subject.