In a black-box gallery-theater at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, “The White Album” plays on a continuous loop.
This is not the famous musical work of the same title from a certain British band. Rather, this is the debut of a new video installation from award-winning artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa, commissioned by BAMFA and on view through March 24 as part of his major solo exhibition, “Arthur Jafa/MATRIX 272.”
This “White Album” is a powerful collection of images and snippets of videos — from the internet, news footage and other sources – spliced together on a 30-minute loop in what might appear to the casual observer as a stream of conscious confusion. There’s a white guy in handcuffs shouting the n-word at the top of his lungs to a black female cop who remains poised and stoic. There’s a black dad taunting his son, who’s losing at a video game, making the boy cry.
Then there’s a blip of a frail-looking Val Kilmer. Then a white man decrying the culture of white supremacy. A meme of O.J. Simpson’s parole hearing. A bearded white guy showing off a scary collection of assault rifles. A pretty white teen girl saying how she’s the least racist person on earth.
All these things blur together like random thoughts cycling through a sleeping brain. What does it all mean? Whatever you want it to. Or nothing at all, according to Jafa, who claims no real agenda, no grand statement one way or another.
These are merely his musings, he says, his contemplations on the complicated dynamics of race in America.
In conversation with BAMPFA curators, the 58-year-old Los Angeles-based artist recently discussed the concept of “affective proximity” in the piece, a term coined by his friend and film artist, John Akomfrah — basically how one puts images together in relation to one another.
“It’s this whole idea of, how do you take givens and — without actually changing the material dimensions of those things — create a new thing?” he said. “This is not collaging them, this is pure sequencing, being a selector. They transform the actual — not just the experience of the thing, but the thing itself, in some fundamental way — just by contextual resequencing.”
In still larger context, “The White Album” is a sequel — sort of — to Jafa’s seminal “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death,” his 2016 seven-minute montage of the African-American experience in this country. It was a profound portrait that won wide international acclaim and has been added to the Smithsonian’s permanent collections. It juxtaposed video images of police shootings with civil rights-era protests along with African-American icons, such as former President Barack Obama — all set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.”
With “White Album,” Jafa uses a similar, mash-up approach to explore white identity. There’s a goofy white teenager enthusiastically lip-synching to “Living on a Prayer” in a stadium, a viral meme of dancing cybergoths, a news station interview with a black man who’d been shot, lingering close-ups on white faces.
Still, Jafa doesn’t consider “White Album” a sequel. But he doesn’t consider it “not” a sequel either.
“It’s hard to say whether it is any more of a follow-up to ‘Love is the Message’ than anything I do,” he said as printed in the museum’s exhibition guide. “They’re all follow-ups because they’re preceded by alternate iterations of my thinking. And that line of thinking is continuous, continuously unfurling.”
He says this film defies “what I think people think is central to what I do, which is to mainly focus on black folks,” he said. “It’s not that ‘The White Album’ doesn’t have black folks in it, obviously it does, but it’s a very particular marginalization, or it de-figures, or pushes the black figure to the edges of it, and what’s left is white folks.”
Whatever it is, the film is thought-provoking to say the least. “With his recent work, Arthur Jafa continues to offer profound responses to ongoing societal convulsions in the United States,” said BAMPFA associate film curator Kate MacKay, who co-curated the exhibition and film program with Apsara DiQuinzio, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “As an institution dedicated to the belief that art and film can contribute to our civic discourse, BAMPFA is thrilled to show an artist and filmmaker whose work does precisely that.”
During the past three decades, Jafa has built a distinguished career as a film director, editor and cinematographer. His past projects include collaborations with Julie Dash, Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick among others. With a career that spans both art and film, Jafa has worked to create what he describes as “black cinema with the power, beauty and alienation of black music.”
In addition to “The White Album,” the BAMPFA exhibition includes a collection of Jafa’s numerous scrapbooks – snapshots, advertisements, news photographs that he’s been collecting since the 1980s. Kind of the hard-copy version of his films.
And as part of this MATRIX exhibit — a changing series of contemporary art exhibitions at BAMPFA — there will also be discussions with the artist and screenings of works Jafa has made over the past decade, presented in BAMPFA’s Barbro Osher Theater alongside films and videos made by others that Jafa has selected.
The Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive is at 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Visit www.bampfa.org for more information on tickets and special events.