The Art Issue

Kahlil Joseph Is Challenging Representations of Black Life in America

With his riveting short films and installations, the video artist and filmmaker is emerging as one of the most original voices of his generation.

Kahlil Joseph at home in Los Angeles.

Ask Kahlil Joseph to talk about his compelling and varied image-making—which has ranged from a tone poem about Compton to a moody, fragmented evocation of Harlem’s past and present—and he’ll invariably shift the focus to his late younger brother, Noah Davis. In 2012, Davis, a promising figurative painter, cofounded the Underground Museum in Los Angeles, with a view to bringing museum-quality exhibitions to his inner-city neighbors. By the time he died at age 32, from cancer, in 2015, Davis had seeded a community of artists and creatives for whom the Underground Museum serves as an incubator and vitalizing force.

Joseph counts himself among them. So do the artists Henry Taylor, Arthur Jafa, Deana Lawson, and the actress and activist Amandla Stenberg. It was
 at the Underground Museum where Barry Jenkins screened Moonlight in 2016 and Solange Knowles held a listening party for her album A Seat at the Table. And it was there that Joseph made the breakthrough that led to his career as an artist. In 2014, he was a rising filmmaker who had directed music videos for the likes of Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces. But he was struggling to release a short film he’d made, based on work he had done for Kendrick Lamar that melded home movies from Lamar with footage that Joseph had shot in Compton. At first he resisted when Noah suggested that he turn his short film into a two-channel installation video for a group show Noah was curating at the Underground. The way he saw it, Joseph recently recalled, the art world wasn’t his domain. “I’m a moving image guy.” But he agreed, and the film m.A.A.d.’s critical success led, in quick succession, to shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., the New Museum in New York, and the Tate Museum in London. In between, Beyoncé invited Joseph to direct her visual album, Lemonade. This past year, he was one of the featured artists in the Venice Biennale’s main exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”

What Joseph’s films share in common is their celebration of black life and their atmospheric visual layering. Until the Quiet Comes, a 2012 piece that he made for the musician Flying Lotus, ruminates on the death of two young black men. Fly Paper, his most personal film, set in New York, pays homage to the black-and-white photographs of Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava and to Joseph’s father, Keven Davis, an entertainment and sports attorney, who died in 2012. The film interweaves vérité footage shot during hospital visits and city walks with elegantly staged scenes: In one, the actor Ben Vereen daydreams in a bathtub, fully clothed.

Joseph grew up in Seattle, moving to Los Angeles at 18 to study film editing. He interned for the artist Doug Aitken and assisted the photographer Melodie McDaniel, who is a member of the Directors Bureau, a commercial and music video production company that also represents Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson. “They were amazing to me, but I could tell I wasn’t going to get very far in that space,” he said. “It was very influential but very white.” He found his “North Star” in the artist Arthur Jafa, a cinematographer who at the time was searching to define his own artistic language. “I remember him using the Jimi Hendrix guitar reference, saying, ‘What he does to that note, the guitar is not meant to do,’” recalled Joseph.“ He said, ‘What if an image could do that?’ And I remember being like, whoa.”

This past year, Joseph, Jafa, and Henry Taylor were all featured artists in the Venice Biennale. Joseph presented BLKNWS, an ambitious, original newscast in the form of a two-channel video montage that combines found clips on the Internet with archival, newly shot, and current news clips. Juxtaposing images on two screens, hung side by side, Joseph explores and reengineers the ways that images of black lives and achievement are delivered. He sees it as an ongoing project: for the past year, BLKNWS has been broadcast at the Underground Museum, Stanford University, and a barbershop in Washington, D.C. Joseph hopes it might find its way to hospital emergency rooms and other public spaces.

In January, it comes to David Zwirner gallery in New York, as part of the largest show devoted to the work of Noah Davis, the first since his death.

Joseph is a deeply private man who rarely gives interviews. But on a recent fall afternoon in L.A., where he lives with his wife and producer, Onye Anyanwu, and their two children, he sat down for an expansive conversation.

Video stills, Kahlil Joseph, BLKNWS, ongoing two-channel fugitive newscast.
I think I’ve always been interested in these quotidian moments that I just don’t ever see, period. The felt experience as opposed to the lived experience. —KAHLIL JOSEPH

Your latest work, BLKNWS, is a two-channel video that samples media clips, music videos, and current and historical news about black culture. How did you come up with the idea?

About four years ago, I was having a conversation with my friend [director] Ryan Coogler about black people on the news and just how shameful it usually is. I remember saying, “We should just do the news ourselves,” almost jokingly, but then as I said it, I recognized that it was a very real possibility. And in that moment the seed was planted. Like, what would that even look like if I did the news? We talked about it but then Black Panther happened for him and he just went into a whole other world. So I started thinking about it as a TV show, because what else could it possibly become that I could handle? So I talked to different networks and stuff.

What was the response?

They thought it was really intriguing but they ultimately all passed on it. It was too high-concept. And I was a little frustrated because I saw other things they were green-lighting. Then, I was at a collector’s house in New York in November 2017, the day after the opening of my film Fly Paper at the New Museum, and I was on the phone with one of the networks that I had been talking to. They said, “No money is going to free up, blah, blah.” The collector could tell I was irritated by the call and she asked me about it. I was hesitant to tell her because I thought the ideas in my mind weren’t “art-related,” but I gave her the three-minute speech about what BLKNWS was, and she said, “That sounds amazing. If you need the money, let me know.” So I started thinking about BLKNWS potentially as a work of art. I got some ideas together and a few months later, Ralph Rugoff [director of the 2019 Venice Biennale] was in town and wanted to meet. At that point I had a little five-minute thing and he watched it and said, “Would you like to be in the Venice Biennale? If you make this thing a reality, I would love to include it.”

How did you find a shape for BLKNWS?

I did a lot of research on contemporary art, the history of modern art, journalism, and the news. My lane is the moving image. Some of the most powerful versions moving images are of the news media. I saw a lot of potential because I thought there was very little conversation happening with the history of the moving image. So now in the 2000s, moving images are everywhere and people are more savvy about them than they are about painting and drawing. At the same time, I asked myself, what is the news? As black people, we’ve never had a New York Times or ABC or CNN. News, as I was learning, in the industrial-news complex, is a current event or a human interest story or some version of someone’s opinion. So I collapsed the history of contemporary art, which you can track back to Duchamp and conceptualism and his idea that anything can be art as long as you give it context. I call BLKNWS conceptual journalism—I think anything can be news, given context. That’s why there are two screens. Things immediately have context once you start pairing them with something.

The pairings in BLKNWS are fascinating and unexpected. What are your sources? How do you use them strategically?

There’s this fallacy that news is a linear event. There’s an excerpt in BLKNWS, a Maya Angelou interview. I can’t tell you how many people are grabbed by that little two-minute excerpt with Maya Angelou because they have never seen it. The clip was from 1973 but it felt new, like it was Ta-Nehisi Coates up there talking about reparations—it was that fresh and it was just sitting on YouTube. So I recognized the power of stuff that’s already out there. If we see a story or headline that’s good, we will redesign it and make it native to a BLKNWS environment. The spectrum of sources that we’ll recontextualize will be from the local L.A. yoga newspaper or magazine to the New York Times. So the hierarchy has been completely flattened.

Installation view of BLKNWS at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Luke Lynch.)

You first became known as a music video director with the breakout success of Until the Quiet Comes, which won the Special Jury Prize for short films at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. What led to your working with Kendrick Lamar?

I wanted to make movies and I was writing and reading scripts and I remember saying to my team, “Pass on anything that feels stereotypical on any level in terms of the black male. Strip club, Compton, gangbangin’, hip-hop, all that shit. Look for the other thing.” And the next call I got was from Kendrick’s manager. We had been trying to make a music video together and it just never happened. His manager said, “Kendrick’s on tour and he needs a creative director to figure out visuals. He’s never really done this, so we thought about you,” and I was like, “I’ve never done this either.” Of course I was excited, but it was high stakes: Kendrick was opening for Kanye. All I knew was, I got to go to Compton and use whatever I find. I also had his album. I knew the narrative that I had to respond to. I shot a triptych that they took on the road and took to new levels. I stayed back in the studio and edited the rest of the footage for nine months.

And Kendrick gave you family home videos to use?

His manager gave them to me on a thumb drive but I didn’t watch them immediately because I had all this footage I had shot on 35 millimeter. So it was just sitting on the desk and then, God bless my editor—he watched all of it and put together this three-minute edit that made me think, This might be better than my whole fucking film! This three-minute footage that Kendrick’s uncle shot in 1990! It was very, very important to what I wanted to make. I finished an edit that was bizarre but that I was really proud of. Kendrick thought it was really amazing but he had already moved on to the next album cycle, so his team didn’t really know what to do with this thing. Kendrick was becoming one of the most important music artists of his time and his team were doing all the required work for him to be that person. So I was just this guy who made this little weird film.

Interestingly, it was your brother, Noah, who helped you see that your film was an artwork and gave you the stage to show it. Can you talk about the breakthrough that became m.A.A.d.?

I was editing the footage at the Underground, which at the time wasn’t even open as the Underground, it was just where my brother and I were working. Noah was a genius on a lot of levels and just so savvy. He realized intuitively that if he put an installation with Kendrick’s music, next to works by Henry Taylor, Ruby Neri, and Kandis Williams, that it was going to be the most interesting show in L.A. And it was. But at the time when he said, “You should make this into a two-screen installation,” I felt the biggest defeat because it made me think, So now it’s art? At that time, the art world felt like this hyperspecialized group of people who all had multiple degrees. But we put up the film on two screens shaped in a V. The show was only open for maybe a month, but it was exciting to see people respond to it. As it was coming to an end I said, insanely naively, “Can a museum have this or something?” And cut to Helen [Molesworth, then chief curator at MOCA, Los Angeles] showing up the way she did.

Video still, Kahlil Joseph, Fly Paper, 2017, 35mm film and mixed digital video. (Photo courtesy the artist.)

She told me she was blown away by m.A.A.d. She went straight back to MOCA and put it on the program, which resulted in your first solo museum show.

And that just changed everything. At one point we had dinner. She said, “If you want a career in the art world, that is available to you but if you don’t, you don’t have to do anything.” I remember being like, What the hell am I going to do? The museum thing is what you work toward. Other than the Underground, that’s where I started.

You grew up in Seattle. Your dad Keven was an entertainment and sports lawyer who did a lot for the Williams sisters early on in their careers. How well did you know them?

I grew up in Seattle, which is the nicest place ever to grow up, with a father and a mother who were amazing in every way. Present and wholesome and challenging. My dad met Richard [Williams] when the girls were seven or eight. I’m the same age as Serena. My dad started working for Richard. I remember Richard would have the craziest conversations with me at a young age. It was really profound and made me think about things in a different way.

Were you going to Venus and Serena’s matches a lot? Were you influenced by seeing that kind of discipline in kids your age?

They were definitely in another category. Once they became famous it wasn’t surprising to Noah and me because they were always unique to us. At 14, Venus was already like six feet tall and then she signed her huge Reebok deal that my dad spent forever working on. We were excited for my dad being this small-town lawyer from Seattle doing this thing for these girls who were turning out to be supericonic.

Video still, Kahlil Joseph, BLKNWS, ongoing two-channel fugitive newscast.

Did you move to L.A. to become a filmmaker?

Yeah. I was this 18-year-old kid learning about the industry through a film editing internship. I took to it really quick and then at the same time, I met Malik Sayeed and A.J. [Arthur Jafa], who is Malik’s mentor.

Didn’t you, Malik, and A.J. all share a studio in the same East L.A. building where Noah, Thomas Houseago, Aaron Curry, and Piero Golia were making art?

I showed people Until the Quiet Comes for the first time at that studio. And then, A.J., Malik, and I were a group, inasmuch as filmmakers can be a group. A lot of the stuff that A.J. ended up releasing as fine art after Love is the Message, the Message is Death [Jafa’s career-changing 2017 film] were ideas that were workshopped in our studio out in East L.A. We used to think we don’t belong here because we’re not artists and we’re in this building with these full-on fine artists. Houseago had just left and we were in his old studio. Everyone was doing sculpture and crazy art shit and all the sinks were all clogged up and here we had film equipment. Shit needs to be dust-free.

You and Noah created an archive of black family photos that you sourced at L.A. flea markets. How did that come about?

I was working for the photographer Melodie McDaniel and engulfed in the history of photography. My brother was new to L.A. and it was starting to emerge as a really fresh place for things to blossom. Tyler the Creator and these kids who were like 17 were having parties. That lifestyle was very carefree and I remember Noah and I being like, “Why are there no black carefree images?” I found this guy selling old photos at the flea market in West Hollywood and I only bought the black family photos. If you ask anybody what they would save if their house was burning, they almost invariably say they would save their family photos. So here I am looking at all these most valuable things that once belonged to people, who have no idea where they are. It’s a metaphor for black life in America and what happens to the black family in our history.

(From Top) Video stills, Kahlil Joseph, Until the Quiet Comes, 2012, 35mm film transferred to HD.

How did that experience shape your sensibility as an image maker?

I couldn’t find that imagery anywhere else, right? I think I’ve always been interested in these quotidian moments that I just don’t ever see, period. The felt experience as opposed to the lived experience.

You were the original director of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which brought you an Emmy
and Grammy nomination for best direction. How did that project come about?

I had known her professionally since 2011. When I got the call that led to Lemonade, she was going through something, she wanted to try to figure something out. We developed Lemonade at the Underground and I showed her m.A.A.d. on a TV screen— she hadn’t seen it yet.

In the end, she also invited in other directors to work on Lemonade. Did that bother you?

I think she had to do what she had to do. You know.

Before you screened your cut of Lemonade at a private screening during Art Basel Switzerland in June 2016, you did something remarkable for Arthur Jafa. You showed his Love is the Message, the Message is Death along with your own film so that you could help get the word out about him to the art world.

Love is the Message was amazing. A.J. is uniquely talented. So I screened his piece with no “this is mine, this is not mine” explanation. It was just, “Here’s some new shit.” I didn’t talk. I had run into [gallerist] Gavin Brown at the fair, so I invited him. Afterward, Gavin got my number and said, “Your piece was cool. What was the thing that you showed before that?” The rest is history.

(From top) Video stills, Kahlil Joseph, Fly Paper, 2017, 35mm film and mixed digital video. (All photos courtesy the artist.)

You made two films in 2017—Black Mary for the
Tate Museum’s “Soul of a Nation” show, and Fly Paper for your debut New York solo show at the New Museum. Both were deeply influenced by the work of Roy DeCarava, a photographer known for his portraits of jazz musicians and Harlem life, who was largely overlooked in the art world at the time.

The New Museum and the Tate called at the same time asking for new work. The New Museum wanted something that connected me to New York. The only time I lived in New York was to take care of my dad. [Keven had moved from Seattle to Harlem; in 2011, he died from brain cancer.] It was such a profound experience for me. Roy DeCarava was another New York connection.

You’re such a deeply private person. What led you to include footage of your family in Fly Paper?

I had been working for Terrence Malick while my dad was sick. Terry had given me this camera to shoot things for films he was developing. I don’t usually film anything really personal but I was at Sloan Kettering with my dad at his appointments and in Harlem and I would go out. When I went back to L.A., I gave Terry my footage and they used very little so I kept all this stuff from my dad and forgot about it. I found it on a hard drive years later when we were editing Fly Paper. The footage became central.

Your cast also featured legendary Broadway star Ben Vereen, Noah’s father-in-law. [Noah’s widow is the artist Karon Davis, the daughter of Ben Vereen and co-founder of the Underground Museum.]

Fly Paper was about this idea of a father figure, and he’s kind of my symbolic dad. He’s also family. He had just had back surgery and he showed up the same day and did his dance sequence with Storyboard P [the Brooklyn flex dancer] and did not complain. The piece was about the New York art world that my brother had introduced me to. When I went to New York the first time, I was just the filmmaker brother tagging along. The art world wasn’t my world. And then all of a sudden, it collapsed and now these were my colleagues, these were my friends, and it was because of my brother and my father that all of this was happening. Roy DeCarava was also symbolic. I was very vocal about his influence. One of the reasons I felt comfortable including my family photos in the film was because two of my favorite photos of Roy’s are family portraits. Nothing staged about those photographs. They are family photos that are works of art that live next to Miles Davis’ portrait. I don’t know any other photographer who can do that. It’s just so seamless.

(From left) Noah Davis’ Untitled, 2005 hangs in Joseph’s home office. The filmmaker in his space.

I think that’s similar to the way you work in terms of different media blending into one another—news, film, music videos—it’s all of a piece.

Overall, it’s hard for me to see distinctions between anything. For me, the news media is available to me now and needs the most attention. I remember speaking to Kara Walker and she said, “You should read this book called The City of Women [by Ruth Landes].” The book was staggering and I was like, this should be usable. This should be the work of art. I’m being tasked with telling you guys what’s interesting. So that was another element of the confluence of what made BLKNWS. How do you make all of the research into something? It’s a kind of a gumbo. And I update it regularly.

Really? You change it? I don’t know of any other artist making video or digital work who continues to alter a work once they’ve completed it.

Yeah, it’s changed. Completely. Each site is networked and controlled remotely from my studio. It’s unstable. I think art, at its best, is unstable.

The creation of the Underground Museum, your brother’s social sculpture, opened up the art world to you and many other artists and creatives. How is it shaping a larger community?

The Underground is such an intensely public space and the work there is superhumbling. I’m essentially a custodian at best. So my family supports the Underground, the Underground supports the community, the community supports the Underground. There’s a lot of great stuff being made right now, for sure. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be an explosion of black cinema. We had a screening there the other night of Queen and Slim. Lena Waithe wrote it and Melina Matsoukas directed. Melina wanted to do the screening at the Underground and it was beautiful. Solange did the introduction, Puff Daddy had a bunch of seats reserved, and David Adjaye was there. It was packed. And Lena and Melina teared up introducing their first feature film and they said to the audience, “We made this for you guys.” They were talking about black people in general, but I also felt it meant a lot symbolically to say it at the Underground.

Do you want to make both commercial and fine art films?

I see very little distinction between those categories. Miles Davis was a huge pop star, and I don’t think he ever had to make a decision if he was making commercial music or the most serious jazz music ever made. I think film has a lot of potential that is yet untapped. I make stuff that I want to see.

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