Elevating Black Cinema: Arthur Jafa

Filmmaker and artist Arthur Jafa has achieved the kind of success in film, video and digital movie cameras most artists only dream about. For his long-term success in cinema, television, and in the world of fine arts, Arthur Jafa will receive the 2021 Governor’s Award for Excellence in Media Arts.

Born in Tupelo in 1960, Jafa grew up in Clarksdale where both his parents were educators. He often traveled between Tupelo and Clarksdale in his youth. He describes himself as “always drawing” as a child and credits comic books, especially the Fantastic Four, among his early influences.

“Who I am is very much shaped by bouncing backing and forth between those communities,” said Arthur Jafa. “I am very much preoccupied with trying to articulate to people how growing up in the particular place that I did sort of shaped what I do. Sometimes it’s not so apparent.”

Keenly interested in architecture from a young age, Jafa, as student at Howard University, found himself drawn toward the study of film.

When speaking about his interest in architecture and eventual decision to study film instead, Jafa has said, “I was always thinking about things like, ‘if Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue was a house, what would it look like?’ At some point, I realized no one was going to pay for my experimental houses. I remember telling my father, ‘I think I’d rather be a failed filmmaker than a failed architect.’”

After college, Jafa moved to Atlanta to kick off his career, which has seen him move effortlessly between feature films, documentaries, experimental video art pieces, music videos, and other artistic media.

In 1991, Jafa won the award for Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival for Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. A few years later he served as cinematographer on Spike Lee’s feature Crooklyn

Alongside his more high-profile commercial work, Jafa has produced an impressive body of video, art collages, essays, and installations. Many of the country’s top museums have exhibited his work, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. 

His video essay Love is the Message. The Message is Death is in the collections of numerous museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. With a soundtrack of Kanye West’s song “Ultralight Beam,” the work is a collage of found footage depicting Black American experiences –running the gamut from harrowing to celebratory – throughout history. In 2019, his video essay The White Album won the Golden Lion at the prestigious Venice Biennale.

“I’ve had some incredible experiences,” said Jafa of his accomplishments. “You know I shot documentaries for a long time. At the end of the day, the most memorable experiences I’ve had on the film set, so to speak, are documentaries. I’ve met so many really incredible people, like Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, and Samad Davis. I got to know Toni Morrison almost directly by virtue of having worked on a documentary. What’s fascinating to me about documentaries is that you would get answers to questions you didn’t know to ask.”

Arthur Jafa has also made a name for himself as an innovative creator of music videos. He has directed, produced, or photographed videos for Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Solange Knowles.

Always seeking new ways to promote black arts and culture, Jafa co-founded the movie studio SunHaus. The company’s stated goal is to “create a black cinema as culturally, socially, and economically central to the 21st century as was black music to the 20th century.”

Thirty years into a winding and eclectic career, Arthur Jafa continues to explore innovative forms of artistic expression.

“I very much intend to come back and film in Mississippi,” said Jafa. “I am pretty optimistic about the future. A lot of the chaos right now is because we are in the moment of fundamental change, and that’s always the case when things are changing. It’s 2021 now. I think the beginning of the 21st century is really just starting now. We’re going to finally see what the 21st century is going to look like.”

Hear a podcast of MAC’s Mississippi Arts Hour interview with Arthur Jafa.

Find details about the 2021 Governor’s Arts Awards.