A global coalition of 13 museums will stream Arthur Jafa’s propulsive short film “Love Is the Message, the Message is Death” for 48 hours straight. Typically screened within white-walled institutions, the work surveys the Black American experience through a collage of found and original footage, set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.”
The seven-and-a-half-minute film will be presented by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in partnership with the artist. The stream will be shown continuously on the participating museums’ sites starting June 26 at 2 p.m. through June 28 at 2 p.m. — marking the first time it will be shown outside of a museum or gallery context.
“I am thrilled for the opportunity, finally, to have as many people as possible see ‘Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,’” Jafa said in a statement.
The film debuted at the New York City gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 2016, fresh after the presidential election of Donald Trump. A collage of dance, news coverage, archival footage, police surveillance, celebrity appearances and more, the piece fused video images of triumphs and injustices from across decades to create a portrait of being Black in America. Since its release, the film has been declared as one of the most important works of the decade.
“In this powerful meditation on the long history of systemic racism and violence against Black people in the United States,” Studio Museum Harlem, one of the institutions streaming the film, said, “Jafa brings Blackness to the fore, refuting and refusing the erasure of Black history, achievements, and continued trauma from our collective memory.”
In an announcement, Smithsonian Director Stephanie Stebich explained the organization “believes it is necessary to acknowledge the ongoing violence and racial inequality faced by Black Americans.”
“Learning from Arthur Jafa’s powerful artwork is one way to do so,” she continued. “We acknowledge that sharing art is not enough to effect social change. At the same time, we believe artists’ insights into complex histories and lived experiences are meaningful and motivating.”
The international stream of “Love Is the Message” comes as calls for equity continue to ring within art institutions in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Last week, current and former workers at major art organizations — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Opera — released the open letter #ForTheCutlure. The statement demanded the “dismantling of the systemic oppression” within the institutions. In a separate letter, members of the Guggenheim’s Curatorial Department called on museum officials to reform the organization.
“Our mission is to create meaning and context through the display and preservation of art of our time,” Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu said in a statement announcing the “Love Is the Message” stream. “With this comes social responsibilities. We grieve with the families and communities who are subject to ongoing injustices, racism and brutality. Every Black life matters. It is Arthur Jafa’s intention that his work be shared across the world.”
When “Love Is the Message” was first released, the film was greeted with immediate praise — a reaction that made Jafa pause. In an interview with Berkeley Museum of Art Pacific Film Archive curator Apsara DiQuinzio two years later, Jafa explained that his subsequent films “The White Album” (a critical examination of whiteness and the imbalance of race and power in the United States) and “akingdoncomethas” were borne in part as an answer to this “overwhelming” response he received.
“People were getting this eight-minute epiphany so that even when people said, ‘Oh, I cried,’ the very cynical part of my brain suspected some kind of arrested empathy with regards to the experience of Black folk,” Jafa told DiQuinzio. “But I don’t want to do any more eight-minute epiphanies. Hence, ‘akingdoncomethas’ is two hours long. I wanted it to be something a bit more complicated to digest.”
Still from “Love Is the Mess, the Message is Death,” by Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York/Rome.
The “Love Is the Answer” streaming event will feature two roundtable panel discussions “convened” by the artist on June 27 at 2 p.m. (Peter L’Official, Josh Begley, Elleza Kelley and Thomas Lax) and June 28 at 2 p.m. (Aria Dean, Rashaad Newsome, Isis Pickens and Simone White). The panels, moderated by Tina Campt, will be screened on the sunhaus.us website.
Participating institutions include Dallas Museum of Art; Glenstone Museum; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Studio Museum in Harlem; Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin; Luma Arles in France and Luma Westbau in Zürich; Palazzo Grassi — Punta della Dogana — Pinault Collection; the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; and the Tate in London.
Updated June 27.
Top Image: Installation view of "Love Is the Mess, the Message is Death," by Arthur Jafa, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian, Washington DC, 2017. Courtesy of Arthur Jafa and Gavin Brown's Enterprise, New York/Rome. Photo: Cathy Carver.