Arthur Jafa and the Black Aesthetic: Get to Know the Artist Who Inspires Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter Family

By Stephanie Fields, Cleveland Arts Prize “On the Verge” Fellow

Award-winning artist, director, and cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Photo: Courtesy Robert Hamacher.

On Saturday, October 13, at 2:00 p.m., renowned artist, director, and cinematographer Arthur Jafa will discuss his thirty-year career in a lecture titled, “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions.” This free program is part of the Rupp Contemporary Artists Lecture Series. Jafa uses a range of visual media and music to examine black life and culture in the United States. His film and music video credits include work with Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Ava Duvernay, Beyoncé, Solange, Jay-Z, and more. His groundbreaking work has toured museums internationally. Two films Jafa has worked on, Daughters of the Dust and Crooklyn will be showing this October at CMA

Please note: some videos featured in this post contain violent images.

Arthur Jafa is a visual artist, filmmaker, and cinematographer who has captured the history and experiences of black Americans in groundbreaking film and visual media for nearly three decades. Jafa’s work has exemplified the black aesthetic in stories of a Gullah family’s migration into the mainland of the Carolinas (Daughters of the Dust); a young girl’s journey toward self-realization after the passing of her mother (Crooklyn); and the stark juxtaposition of violence and jubilance, sorrow and sovereignty (Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death). Black aesthetic is a term born from the Black Arts Movement that means, simply, to centralize black life in art without the focus on or use of Eurocentric ideals or rules.

Jafa has also been a key collaborator for world-famous musicians seeking to create work that exists beyond the reflection of the white gaze and focuses instead on an idiosyncratic exploration of blackness and its own being, struggles, joys, and pains.

Daughters of the Dust (2K Restoration, 2016) | Official US Trailer via Official YouTube channel of Cohen Media Group.

Daughters of the Dust — art-directed by Kerry James Marshall, whose work is now on view at the CMA — provides the core aesthetic present in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a visual-album that tells the trials and triumphs of a black woman’s ability to love, hurt, and heal. The film’s influence is present throughout every breathtaking image of black women peering into the camera, working together to prepare a meal, and dancing. In this groundbreaking project, Beyoncé, a world-renowned performer, not only shares her sorrow but also rejects the ability to “transcend” her race. At a time when Beyoncé could mute her blackness for mainstream palatability, she affirms it and resists providing audiences or critics the power to divorce her blackness from her art. It makes perfect sense why she would collaborate with Jafa to create her own black aesthetic and assert herself in a legacy of artists who have done the same.

Beyoncé — Formation, via The Official Beyoncé Youtube Channel. Licensed to YouTube by
CMRRA, ASCAP, PEDL, Warner Chappell, UBEM, and 6 Music Rights Societies. Beyoncé Knowles is a multi-platinum, Grammy Award-winning recording artist who’s acclaimed for her thrilling vocals, videos and live shows.

Jafa has continued to lend his artistic prowess to Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter family, collaborating with her sister Solange on visuals from her album A Seat at the Table and editing the music video for Jay-Z’s “4:44,” proving his ability to thread together black life in a tapestry as frightening as it is beautiful, as visceral as it is uplifting.

JAY-Z — 4:44, via Jay-Z’s Youtube Channel. Music video by JAY-Z performing 4:44. © 2017 S. Carter Enterprises, LLC. Marketed by Roc Nation & Distributed by Roc Nation/UMG Recordings, Inc.
Solange — Don’t Touch My Hair (Video) ft. Sampha, via Solange’s YouTube Channel. Director of Photography Arthur Jafa. Licensed to YouTube by SME (on behalf of Columbia); Beggars_Catalogues, BMG Rights Management, Sony ATV Publishing, UBEM, EMI Music Publishing, Kobalt Music Publishing, CMRRA, SOLAR Music Rights Management, ASCAP, ARESA, Abramus Digital, and 14 Music Rights Societies.

Such dichotomies also play out in Jafa’s own visual masterpiece Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, a compilation of jump-cut juxtapositions of film and internet clips that build a world where black death, joy, pain, triumph, and sorrow come together over Kanye West’s song “Ultralight Beam.” Jafa has authentically captured and centralized the jarring and jubilant experience of black life, establishing an aesthetic that is not amplified by, in conversation with, or made valid by a white gaze.

Ultralight Beam — Kanye West. The Life Of Pablo ℗ ℗ 2016 Getting Out Our Dreams II, LLC. Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group North America.

The goal of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s was to create art that centralized black experiences, radicalized the way communities saw themselves, and created space for self-determination and liberation. Through his work, Jafa has not only exemplified missions from movements past, but he has created a bridge into the next generation of artists who dare to reflect their world from their own perspectives.

Kendrick Lamar — ELEMENT. Via Kendrick Lamar on Vevo. Licensed to YouTube by
UMG (on behalf of Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Records/ Interscope Records); CMRRA, UMPG Publishing, UBEM, Warner Chappell, ASCAP, PEDL, SOLAR Music Rights Management, Sony ATV Publishing, and 11 Music Rights Societies.

Such is already being seen in videos like “Element” by Kendrick Lamar, who draws inspiration from Gordon Parks; videos by Beyoncé and Jay-Z like “Apeshit,” which exists as a figurative and physical disruption of exclusionary Eurocentric institutions like the Louvre in order to insert and focus on the validity of blackness (reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s multidisciplinary lecture at the Louvre); and shows like Terrence Nance’s Random Acts of Flyness, in which blackness in all its varied forms, identities, and experiences takes center stage in an achronological, stream-of-consciousness editing style as reminiscent of Jafa’s work as much as his unabashed, unapologetic, unflinching gaze into the lives and consciousness of black Americans.

APES**T — THE CARTERS, via The Official Beyoncé Youtube Channel. Licensed to YouTube by
SME, UMG (on behalf of Parkwood Entertainment/Roc Nation); ASCAP, EMI Music Publishing, Reservoir Media (Publishing), CMRRA, Broma 16, PEDL, UBEM, and 6 Music Rights Societies.
Random Acts Of Flyness (2018) Teaser Trailer | HBO, via official HBO YouTube Channel.

When writing about the Black Arts Movement in his 1968 essay, cultural critic and playwright Larry Neal asked, “If art is the harbinger of future possibilities, what does the future of Black America portend?” The work of Arthur Jafa, and of those who have preceded and those who will follow, affirms a multitude of unyielding, multilayered, exceptional art that exerts an aesthetic independent of Eurocentricism.

The work of Arthur Jafa, and of those who have preceded and those who will follow, affirms a multitude of unyielding, multilayered, exceptional art that exerts an aesthetic independent of Eurocentricism. — Stephanie Fields, Cleveland Arts Prize “On the Verge” Fellow
Award-winning artist, director, and cinematographer Arthur Jafa. Photo: Courtesy Robert Hamacher.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Stephanie Fields received her BA in English from the Ohio State University and is a Cleveland Arts Prize “On the Verge” Fellow.