Arthur Jafa’s Cinematography and Music Videos: How a Foundational Artist First Became a Sensation in the Film World

Before his recent rise to the top of the ranks, Arthur Jafa was not well-known within the art world—but that has drastically changed. His 2016 video Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death is one of the essential artworks of the past decade, and last year, he took home the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, the world’s top art festival. He’s also beloved among other artists: Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel worked with him for their 2018 film Happy Birthday, Marsha!, about the gay and transgender rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Before he became an art-world sensation, Jafa came up as a notable presence on the film circuit, where he continues to loom. Below, a look at six of the best projects that Jafa has collaborated on in different contexts.

Lazy loaded image
Still from Daughters of the Dust (1991).COURTESY COHEN MEDIA GROUP

Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Julie Dash’s remarkable film about the migration of one Black community from the South to the North was a landmark—it was the first feature by a Black woman to be released theatrically in the United States. Much of what makes the film so unforgettable is its lyrical approach to its subject matter, which privileges small moments that threaten to take on epic significance for a group of people whose future is about to be forever changed. Jafa, who served as director of photography, aided significantly, offering dreamy, lush visuals that situate groups of Black women in sublime natural settings. When the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Jafa was given an award for his cinematography. (And as it turned out, the film’s production also involved another future art sensation: Kerry James Marshall, who served as production designer.)
Where to watch: Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and other sites for rental, and on the Criterion Channel with subscription 

Lazy loaded image
John Akomfrah, Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993.