Arthur Jafa

The artist takes us through his charged work APEX and the notebooks that inspired it.

Mickey Mouse, Tupac, a baby, planets, injured and dead bodies, Miles Davis. These are some of the 841 images that appear in rapid sequence in Arthur Jafa’s APEX, a video set to a pulsing techno beat and the beeping of a heart monitor. For several decades Jafa has collected hundreds of images from newspapers, magazines, books, and films, saving them in notebooks. Before he began downloading and organizing images digitally, these notebooks often provided inspiration for his cinematography, and he is known for bringing them out to share with friends.

Jafa references and reuses many of these images throughout his work; one is a mid-1800s photograph of a former enslaved person’s scarred back, which for Jafa is “an emblem of how the black experience is this complex of majesty and misery that are inextricably bound up.” What is the relationship between this image and others in APEX? For Jafa, “It’s all associative.... The whole idea was always if you took this thing and that thing and you overlap them, the place in which they overlapped was you.” This summer, we traveled to Jafa’s studio in Los Angeles to talk with him about APEX and the notebooks, which are now on view at MoMA in the exhibition Surrounds: 11 Installations.

This film also appears as part of MoMA’s free online course What Is Contemporary Art? on Coursera. Surrounds: 11 Installations is on view through January 4, 2020.