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PHI Artiste Centre Collectionpermanente Arthur Jafa Bloods Vivien Gaumand

Arthur Jafa

Bloods - 2019

Epson fine-art (inkjet) print mounted on aluminum
132.1 × 224.4 cm
Collection of Miles Greenberg

Photo: Vivien Gaumand

Vincent Bonin on Arthur Jafa

It is difficult at first glance to identify the subjects represented in the diptych Bloods (2019) by Arthur Jafa, even if they are known characters. The artist has paired Robert Johnson with jazzman Miles Davis. Both portraits were taken at the end of the 1930s. The title does not convey this information to us. Moreover, for now, this seemingly transitory and marginal work within Jafa’s corpus - comprising mainly videos - has not been addressed by critics. Although the sources used by the artist can easily be found online, there is little information to shed light on the circumstances of the production of each photograph in the last century. Only three Johnson portraits are known to date, while several hundred of Davis's are in circulation. Jafa’s diptych summons moments of the trajectory of the two musicians before they became visible to a larger audience. When Johnson disappeared in 1938, at the age of 28, Davis was 11 years old. They never met, but Jafa slightly modified the framing of the original shots so that the proximity of the heads of the models gives the impression, for a short moment, that they share the same location. This optical intimacy is amplified perhaps because of the similar backgrounds of the photographers' booths against which the faces stand out. In 2021, Jafa made Bloods II, featuring Johnson with the now-adult Davis, also smoking a cigarette. In the book Magnumb in 2021, Jafa reproduced the Bloods diptychs on double pages spreads. In another section of the monograph, he juxtaposed the snapshot of the young Davis with another found image of an anonymous child, of whom only the eyes are visible. In 2021, Jafa embarked on the project of making a montage film around Johnson under the title Die Alta (he added a caption saying “the first rock n roll artist” below the Vimeo trailer pitch). Jafa composed this provisional repertoire using an ad hoc editing method he called “Black Visual Intonation.” He also employed the associative process of his own devising to make one of his best-known videos, Love is the message, the message is death, from 2016, which alternates between showing moments of struggle and emancipation of the African American people. In Die Alta’s trailer pitch, among a plethora of visual and sound sources, Jafa features Johnson's portrait from the Bloods series next to an icon of Jesus. Through the permutation of these few photographs of Davis and Johnson, Jafa has established a small constellation in which one can read much more than the content of the individual documents if taken in isolation. The artist nevertheless points out there the pitfall of a default comparative approach, which can place a set of protagonists from different periods under an all-encompassing heading (here Black Music). The title of Jafa’s piece, Bloods, ironically alludes to the Los Angeles street gang so named, as its members wear red-coloured clothing that has become a common denominator. Using this allegorical detour, Jafa sets the limits of our imagination when we encounter these photographs of Johnson and Davis, first given to be seen without a caption. The posthumous conversation that could happen between the musicians also remains suspended in the liminal space of free associations, those of the artist and those of the spectator.

About the artist

Arthur Jafa (b. 1960, Tupelo, Mississippi, United States) is an (African-)American artist living and working in Atlanta, Georgia. Raised in a highly segregated time, Jafa has a long held interest in the black jazz of such figures as Miles Davis. Jafa creates films, images, collages and sculptural objects mostly from found materials in a lyrical, disjunctive style that plays on shock, horror, trauma and their transcendence with a transgressive impulse. His work tackles racialized histories and tensions in American culture and puts forward what he calls “ontological blacknuss” and visions of the ‘thingification’ of black bodies in American culture.


Arthur Jafa's Bloods is currently on view in Figure–Ground, a series bringing together several works from PHI's art collection that explore the figure and the complex and intimate correlation it establishes with its background.

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