Arthur Jafa’s 2016 video Love is the Message, The Message is Death is a striking seven-and-a-half-minute display of the power and perils of the African-American experience, all set to Kanye West’s hit Ultralight Beam. The piece made its Smithsonian debut at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden November 2017 as part of the exhibition, "The Message: New Media Works," which closed in September. Now, Jafa’s seminal work officially joins the Smithsonian collections as the first joint acquisition between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn.
“As part of SAAM’s collection, Jafa’s piece resonates powerfully with more than three centuries of artists engaging with America's racial complexities,” says Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, noting the significance of the artwork for each of the museums. “Within the context of the Hirshhorn’s international contemporary art galleries, it stands as a defining work of 21st-century media art,” she says.
As a combination of found and original film, Love is the Message, The Message is Death knits together a century’s worth of video contrasting sensationalized and vilified blackness with images of joy, family and faith in the African-American community. Silent film reels are cut with present-day news coverage, music videos and footage Jafa shot himself or otherwise found online. The ordinary everyday happenings of a people as performers, worshippers, athletes, activists is threaded with the insult of having to live alongside hate, bigotry and destruction. Images and frames bleed into each other and bursts of sound disrupt Kanye and Kirk Franklin’s ethereal musings.
Says the Hirshhorn's director Melissa Chiu, the artist is “unapologetically bold" and "one of the most provocative" working today.
Saisha Grayson, who is the Smithsonian American Art Museum's curator of time-based media has viewed the work dozens of times. “I cry every time,” she says. “I cry at different parts, for different reasons, but I’m never not profoundly moved.”
As are most viewers, she suspects. During the weeks following Donald Trump’s presidential win in November 2016, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers made their way to Harlem to see Love is the Message at the gallery where it had just debuted. The New Yorker designated the work “required viewing.”
To Grayson, Love is the Message, The Message is Death manages to be both timely and timeless. The video, she says, “speaks in the language of our time,” resonating as a “contemporary Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s famous oil painting interpretation of the 1937 bombing of the northern Spanish town. Similarly, Grayson says the artwork forces individuals who would otherwise be desensitized to racial violence, or who cope with their trauma alone, to “look and think collectively about this national tragedy.”
SAAM’s third floor, where contemporary time-based media art like Jafa’s is usually displayed, is currently housing the immense Trevor Paglen exhibition, "Sites Unseen." So, museum goers may have to allow the museum some time to organize suitable programming before Love is the Message makes its SAAM debut. Similarily, there are no details yet on when the video will return for viewing at the Hirshhorn Museum.