Our visit last week to the Lousiana Museum north of Copenhagen had us take in four different exhibits that made an impression on me. One of them was Magnumb about the work of Arthur Jafa.

At first I was taken in by the beauty of this sculpture, right before realising the scars of violence it shows, based as it is on a iconic image from the US civil war era.

Ex-Slave Gordon, Arthur Jafa 2017, Vacuum-formed plastic. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Then there was the in part highly disturbing imagery of Jafa’s cinematography, making one recoil, yet at the same time because of its composition and sequencing pulling you in, making you stare. Having returned home, I found the interview below on the Lousiana Museum’s Vimeo channel, where Jafa talks extensively about his work.

Arthur Jafa: Not All Good, Not All Bad from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

I think it’s a highly fascinating interview, in its full 42 minutes. Particularly how Jafa talks about imagery, perceptions of good and evil, and imagined audiences for the things you create.

He talks about collecting images as (my phrasing) commonplacing, as taking ownership of something that otherwise might have been highly transitional even if important. How he sees the human reaction of disgust and recoil while watching something as a signal to look much closer, even stare at it. That the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras enable all to do such collection of imagery, how it permits everyone to capture things. Such as the violence against African Americans, which has been always there and is nothing new. The newness is how all of us are enabled to make it visible in new ways, on a new level of intensity.
He talks about the spectrum between good and bad, hence the title of the interview ‘not all good, not all bad’. That us typically wanting to pigeonhole someone or something as either good or bad, before finding out an aspect about it that doesn’t fit, should not lead to then fully switching to labeling it the opposite. You have to get comfortable with the discomfort of juggling different and opposite notions about someone or something at the same time.
He talks about the intended audience for his work, whom he is speaking to. “My work addresses black [American] people, everybody else gets to listen in.” How having a limited imagined audience for your work is not an exclusionary act. How it is something that breathes life into the work, injects meaning and passion into a creative expression, impossible to achieve if that work would have been imagined for everyone. After which that life, meaning and passion can be appreciated as well by anyone outside those that are originally being addressed.

Magnumb, a contraction of magnum and numb. At the Louisiana Museum, image by Ton Zijlstra, license CC BY NC SA

Y taking in an enormous BLM themed work

The local museum Kunsthal Kade for the past 6 months had an exhibit of some 150 works by almost 50 African American artists spanning from the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance to today, titled TELL ME YOUR STORY. 100 years of storytelling in African American art.

Beautiful, compelling, and sometimes confronting works. All the more so given the renewed civil rights struggle in the USA in the past months.

The 1920’s/30’s gouaches by Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) I found very beautiful.

The collages by Romare Bearden (1911-1988) jumped out at me. Apparently he created them in 1960’s and 70’s while listening to jazz and blues, “My hands sing the blues.

The Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems I thought striking photography. Her 1990’s round red images from From here I saw what happened and I cried tells of so much pain, dehumanisation, cruelty, slavery, and injustice, tying it to the faces of individual humans, looking them into their eyes.

E looking at Carrie Mae Weem’s work

In the section on the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s the last few minutes of author James Baldwin‘s conversation from “The Negro and the American Promise” was shown on video.

The powerful fragment shown in the exhibit comes from the end of that video, and started with a statement that, while not the key message, rings as personally true for me since my mid-twenties “I can’t be a pessimist, because I’m alive. […] So I’m forced to be an optimist.

…Why storytelling matters.

Een uiterst leesbaar boek, over wit privilege, systeem zien, ons cultureel verleden en de hedendaagse expressie ervan. Over hoe kleine wijzigingen in taalgebruik en iets meer reflectie een hoop kleine agressie schelen. Over luisteren en horen, over ruimte maken. In complexiteit zijn menselijke ervaringsverhalen, met ieder hun eigen waarheid en duiding, de meetlat voor sturing en verandering. Dat is ook als het om racisme gaat het recept. En dat is wat Nzume hier doet, menselijke ervaringen en systeemdenken uiteenzetten.

Dat het boek door anderen wordt gezien als haat, als individuele aanval, en als ‘het is ook nooit goed’, ondanks dat Nzume dat nadrukkelijk en bij herhaling anders stelt, is exact het soort simplistische karikatuur waartoe het boek oproept nu eindelijk eens overboord te zetten. Om de complexiteit van het menselijk leven te omarmen voor wat het is, zodat we gezamenlijk vooruit kunnen. In plaats van in de opgehouden spiegel te kijken en je boze en vertrokken reflectie voor het gezicht van de ander te houden.