ARTHUR JAFA INDEX: A Series of Utterly Improbable Statistics

Jasmine Amussen

Arthur Jafa is an artist, filmmaker, and “omnidirectional polymath” from Tupelo, Mississippi. He is 58 years old, and worked as a cinematographer for Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee early in his career. Released in the run up to the 2016 US presidential race, his seven-minute film Love Is The Message The Message Is Death was referred to by The New Yorker as “a crucial ode to black America” and by ArtNews as a “worldwide sensation” that “described America to itself.”

His latest film, The White Album, premiered in December 2018 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and went on to earn him a Golden Lion for best artist in the central exhibition at the 2019 Venice Biennale. “Whiteness is the devil’s work, I think,” Jafa has explained in an interview with Artsy. The companion catalog to Jafa’s A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions – a video-focused exhibition that took over the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin last year and headed to Prague’s Galerie Rudolfinum in 2019 – physically and conceptually manifests the artist’s increasingly deep and broad influence in contemporary culture and criticism. Below is an indexical overview of the publication’s weighty contents, and layered contexts.


Note: one bema or other support device recommended for reading.

Length of titular video in A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions (ASUIYER): 89:11
Length of Apex, Jafa’s breakthrough video: 8:22
Year Apex premiered on a street: 2015
Solo exhibitions Arthur Jafa has had since: 6
➥in Europe: 3


Museums that have purchased Love is the Message The Message is Death (2016): 4
Features in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, and Frieze since 2016: 7
Dimensions of ASUIYER catalogue: 33.9 x 8 x 27.4 cm
Weight: 6.4 kg
Total pages: 840
Price: €90
Total texts: 39

➥Of these, about musicians: 3
➥Art and aesthetics: 9
➥Homosexuality: 2
➥Race, Blackness, and Black people: 13
➥Alien abductions: 1
➥AIDS: 1

Reprints: 30

➥From magazines or journals: 6
➥Of album liner notes: 1

Total authors: 35

➥Non-white: 18
➥Women: 10
➥Deceased: 7
➥Shot and killed by police: 1¹
➥Shot and killed herself after euthanizing her husband with the same weapon: 1²
➥Current or former prisoners: 1³
➥Current or former government agents: 1⁴
➥Recipients of orders of empire or similar awards of merit: 4
➥MacArthur grantees: 1
➥Guggenheim fellows: 3
➥Aged under 35: 1
➥Musicians: 2
➥Musicians identifying as Afro-pessimists⁵: 4
➥Of these, women: 4
➥Science fiction writers: 5
➥Dramaturges: 2
➥Professors: 7
➥Philosophers: 3
➥Poets: 6


Total images: 168

➥Credited to Arthur Jafa: 65
➥Depicting slavery, segregation, genocide, lynching, or other violence against Black bodies: 13
➥Black people holding or using weapons: 6
➥Black women: 36
➥Of these, victims of acts of violence or terror: 5
➥Celebrities: 5⁶

Depicted in death: 17

➥Arthur Jafa’s Mom: 1
➥Black people smiling or happy: 3
➥Of these, depicting Arthur Jafa: 2
➥Church or religious services: 5
➥Jazz or blues musicians: 7
➥Miles Davis: 2
➥Punk rock bands: 1
➥Rappers: 0
➥Cinematographers: 6
➥Of these, Arthur Jafa: 2

Jafa’s cinematography credits listed on his agent’s website: 30
➥Of these, music video credits: 11
➥Music videos for the Knowles-Carter family: 5⁸


Length of JAY-Z’s “4:44,” which Jafa directed: 8:40
Year of premiere of Jafa’s akingdoncomethas, a video made of footage from Black church services, at Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem, NY: 2018

Length of akingdoncomethas: 100:00

¹ Henry Dumas was shot three times and killed by a New York Transit Police (NYTP) officer on the southbound platform of the 2/3 train at 125th Street in Manhattan on May 23, 1968. The officer alleged that Dumas had threatened another man with a knife and refused to drop the weapon, approaching him instead. No witnesses testified, and the records were destroyed when the NYTP merged with the New York City Police Department in 1995.

² James Tiptree Jr, the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon, is the author of The Women Men Don’t See, a science fiction story about a consensual alien abduction re-published in ASUIYER. Sheldon, one of the few white people included in the catalogue’s imagery or texts, shot and killed her husband after ten years of caring for him through worsening illness – a plan the couple had discussed together, and with their lawyer. She killed herself immediately after taking his life. Her 1973 short story Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death is narrated by a sentient, spider-like alien who nurtures violent and ecstatic love for another of his kind, only to succumb to nature’s cannibalistic plan. The title of Jafa’s Love is the Message and the Message is Death is a reference to this story. Speaking to 032c in 2017, Jafa said he identifies with Tiptree’s “monsters” and other aliens in society.

³ Amiri Baraka, who was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of carrying an illegal weapon and resisting arrest during the 1967 Newark riots. An appeals court eventually reversed the sentence. Baraka later joked that he was charged with holding “two revolvers and two poems.”

⁴ Alice Bradley Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) was in the CIA from 1952 to 1955. On her eclectic professional history, which involved a doctorate in experimental psychology and a stint with the Air Force photo-intelligence group, and her decision to write under a masculine pen name, she said: “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

⁵ “Afro-pessimism isn’t anti-hope, it’s anti-optimism.” – Che Gossett

⁶ Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Billie Holiday, Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu.

⁷ Billie Holiday

⁸ Solange, “Cranes in the Sky”; Solange, “Don’t Touch My Hair”; Jay-Z, “4:44”; Beyoncé, featuring J. Cole, “Party”; Beyoncé, Lemonade (visual album).

Arthur Jafa, “A Series of Utterly Improbable, Yet Extraordinary Renditions,” will open at Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague on January 17, 2019. The accompanying catalog, on which the above index is based, is published by Walther Koenig (Cologne, 2018)

  • Text: Jasmine Amussen