liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies
6, no. 1, Spring 2022 (Duke University Press, beginning Spring 2021)
About liquid blackness
- liquid blackness is an open-access journal, which means that all content is freely available without charge to readers or their institutions.
- Our Editorial and Advisory Boards
The liquid blackness journal seeks to carve out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black Studies to come together in productive ways, with a double goal: to fully attend to the aesthetic work of blackness and to the political work of form. In this way, the journal strives to develop innovative approaches and analytic tools to address points of convergence between the exigencies of black life and the many slippery ways in which blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture.
liquid blackness aims to establish a point of exchange at the intersection of multiple fields. The history of this intentionally undisciplined space is best understood through a series of questions pivoting around (1) the relationship between aesthetics and the ontology of blackness and (2) the generative potential of blackness as an aesthetic. If blackness is, as we argue after Fred Moten, an unregulated generative force, then the liquid blackness journal seeks to offer a dedicated space where it can be consistently unleashed. As we extend and confront lines of inquiry from a number of research fields, our approach is equally concerned with theoretical content, analytical methods, and scholarly praxis.
The Editorial Board has planned the first three themed (and foundational) issues, on the following concepts:
- “liquidity” – Vol 5 no. 1 – Spring 2021
- “blackness” – Vol 5 no. 2 – Fall 2021
- “aesthetics” – Vol 6 no. 1 – Spring 2022
After two foundational issues devoted to “liquidity” and “blackness,” we now turn to our third concept, “aesthetics,” to explore its radical potential for Black Studies. We are inspired by Fred Moten’s posing of black aesthetic sociality as a problem for ontology, and appositional to epistemology and phenomenology. Moten’s insistence on the irreducible vitality of black sociality has been both inspirational and aspirational to the theoretical foundation, the ethics, and the praxis that sustain this journal. His aesthetic thinking and practice—we hesitate to call it a “theory”—unravels in a multitude of ways throughout his long career as poet, theorist, philosopher, art critic, and through his engagement with an extraordinarily rich, varied, and unruly archive.
Inspired by this capacious model of practice and the ways Moten’s work radically upends traditional distinctions between ontology, phenomenology, epistemology, and aesthetics, we offer below some concepts that have appeared in his recent trilogy “consent not to be a single being” to invite contributions that engage with, and might enrich, the theoretical, methodological, and artistic archives mobilized in Moten’s work, or, conversely express skepticism and offer criticism.
We take this opportunity to explore the expansive possibilities of “aesthetic thinking” broadly conceived, and investigate who can do theory (scholars, artists, activists…), how theory can be done (in image, writing, archiving, curating, social activism…), and what a Black aesthetic object is (“high”/“low” art, sound and image, practice and praxis, the work of individual artists and ensembles…).
- black study
- being sent
- chromatic saturation
- black aurality
- poetics of passage
- knowledge of freedom
- form and informality
modes/tools of aesthetic thinking
- thingliness and no-thingness
- black cinematic apparatus and phonographic mise-en-scene
- production, reproduction, and value
- dematerialization, rematerialization, animateriality
- the paraontological
- black ops/Afro-optimism
Essays of no more than 4,000 – 5,000 words with accompanying images, and/or video or sound clip, should be submitted to email@example.com by October 1.
Author Guidelines & Submission Information
- liquid blackness follows the formatting and reference guidelines stipulated by The Chicago Manual of Style
- We welcome submissions of visual and textual art, video, and other artistic work accompanied by an artist statement
- All submissions, solicited and unsolicited, will be peer-reviewed
liquid blackness is excited to present our newest research page Facing the Band: Elissa Blount Moorhead and the (Ana)Architectures of Community Ties. The project will be followed by an artist talk coming to Georgia State University this Fall.
Artist, curator, and producer Elissa Blount-Moorhead’s work explores the “poetics of quotidian Black life, the regularity, ubiquity, and simplicity… to emphasize the gestural dialectics of quiet domesticity and community building.” Blount-Moorhead has collaborated with Bradford Young and is a member of TNEG, the studio behind Jay-Z 4:44 music video, along with Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed.
Blount-Moorhead was also a critical artist for liquid blackness’ recent panel “The Political Reach of Form: Music Video as Black Art” at GSU’s African American Studies Department’s conference, Beyond the Culture: Black Popular Culture and Social Justice.
The full video of our conversation with artist and filmmaker Jenn Nkiru in occasion of the liquid blackness event Jenn Nkiru’s Panafrican Imagination: Black Studies as Aesthetic Practice is now available from our Vimeo page. The liquid blackness research group hosted Nkiru in April 2019 for an artist talk and masterclass to discuss her artistic inspirations and goals, her aesthetic choices, and the vital role that sound and black music plays in her filmmaking process. During the talk, liquid blackness performed a close analysis of a selected sequence from her film REBIRTH IS NECESSARY. Her work was also previously discussed at an event held at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in March 2019 titled (A) Black Lineage of the Music Art Video, in the context of other artists from the Black Diaspora who similarly straddle the line between commercial and artistic spaces, such as Arthur Jafa, Bradford Young, and Kahlil Joseph. These same artists are also the subject of a forthcoming In Focus section in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies (JCMS vol. 59, no. 2), titled, “Modes of Black Liquidity: Music Video as Black Art” edited by Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer with contributions from liquid blackness members Charles P. “Chip” Linscott, Michele Prettyman, James Tobias, and Jenny Gunn. Drawn from the collective research of the liquid blackness group, Gunn’s essay focuses specifically on Nkiru’s intergenerational pedagogical practice.
Jenn Nkiru is introduced by Dr. Michele Prettyman and is in conversation with Dr. Jenny Gunn, Dr. Alessandra Raengo, and Jazmine Hudson.
liquid blackness is proud to announce the release an artist talk by Kahlil Joseph followed by a discussion between Joseph, Dr. Lauren Cramer, and Dr. Alessandra Raengo. The event was held as part of the Holding Blackness In Suspension event on October 6-7, 2016.
You can click to watch the embedded video below, or you can watch it on the liquid blackness Vimeo page.
liquid blackness founder, Alessandra Raengo recently traveled to London to give the keynote address at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair Forum, presenting on the “Scope and Practice of liquid blackness.” The full audio of the talk is available here. Explicating the history of the liquid blackness research group and liquid blackness as a reading strategy, Raengo discussed Joseph’s Black Mary. Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper is currently on view at The Store X, 180 The Strand in London and Raengo reviewed the exhibition for liquid blackness.
Sounding out a Stumble: Melancholic Loops in Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper*, by Alessandra Raengo
*dedicated to Ekow Eshun, who created the opportunity for me to see Fly Paper again
Kahlil Joseph’s Fly Paper now on view at 180 The Strand in London, is aesthetically inspired by the soundful photography of Roy DeCarava, as the title clearly indicates, and the equal care he devoted to musicians and everyday people in Harlem. Structurally, however, it bears the traces of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983, including the latter’s references to La Jetée, 1962), with which it shares questions about memory and forgetting, happiness and blackness. Yet, differently from Marker’s films, Fly Paper—the female voiceover tells us—is “the story of a man who lost forgetting” and thus assumes a quintessentially melancholic position. Not only can’t this man let go of the lost object, but, apparently, he has lost the ability to lose. While it’s unclear who the subject of the film is, it is clear enough that the film itself is determined to carry the lost object(s) along, regardless of the cost.
The film is projected on a loop, as all installation art is, but it does not feature any credits and when the title appears, it comes across as an afterthought leaving the viewer unclear as to whether it signals the beginning, the end, or any other point in the film. Everything we see, seems to occur in medias res, and yet always also as the echo of something that has already taken place or the anticipation of something someone has already imagined. Perhaps it is part of the “delirium” and the “rift” the voiceover indicates memory has to learn to cope with.
Fly Paper weaves together original footage shot for the project with very personal materials: primarily home footage of Kahlil’s father who lived in Harlem at the end of his life and eventually died of brain cancer; footage of Kahlil’s brother, the late Noah Davis, the founder of the underground museum in LA, whose surviving wife, Karen Davis, is the daughter of Ben Vereen, the older dancer featured in the film, who was the star of Bob Fosse musicals. The film moves like a fever dream between different formats: 35mm color film, highly controlled low-contrast black and white footage, and hand-held video, interspersed by variously processed images. Across these transitions, it locates threads of personal memory within the work of what Fred Moten might describe as the “ensemble,” i.e., a form of black sociality that eschews individuation and takes place in a constant productive dynamic between the “solo” and the “group”: artists congregating and socializing as well as various jam sessions taking place in Harlem lofts, including one with Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith that ultimately constitutes the occasion for the primary narrative line in Black Mary. Indeed, although the two films were commissioned by the Vinyl Factory and the Tate in London for the show Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (2017), respectively. Joseph has said they belong to the same narrative universe: “outtakes,” locations, and characters from one appear in the other and the two films complement each other in important ways. Both follow the same logic of subtraction that has characterized Joseph’s work since Wildcat (2013), the black and white rodeo film he shot to a score by Flying Lotus elaborated from Alice Coltrane’s music (who is Flying Lotus’s aunt), which began with documentary footage about a black rodeo in Grayson, Oklahoma ran by a married couple. When Joseph arrived to shoot the film with his crew, the wife—Aunt Janet—had passed away and the town was having the first rodeo ever without her. Joseph collected a series of interviews with a variety of people but then resolved to remove them all from the film and have a young girl in a white dress embody instead the very present spirit of Aunt Janet still hovering over the events. Similarly, in both Fly Paper and Black Mary one has the sense that there is a tremendously rich backstory that Joseph has decided not to share. Yet, what he does share is the result of an extraordinary poetic discipline and sensibility, as well as perhaps a desire to follow the vagrancy of the mind as it is equally engaged in the effort to remember and to forget.
Thus, while it would be tempting to attribute this mental errantry to one of the main “characters” in the film, it is not possible to imagine any one of them as the center of consciousness of the film. Instead, in keeping with its melancholic structure, recognizable and not recognizable figures appear and disappear in the film, without narrative justification and through what seems like a complex pattern of rhymes or doubles, and literal and figurative shadows: Ben Vereen is perhaps the shadow of Joseph’s late father but is in turn shadowed by a younger dancer—Storyboard P—who has been featured prominently in recent works by both Joseph and Arthur Jafa. The two dancers wear similar outfits with very small differences: black pants, white button shirts, a black vest and a Panama hat. Storyboard’s vest however, has black and white pencils attached to it and a black veil pinned to his back which creates the effect of yet another flowing shadow that trails him everywhere he goes. Football player Barry Sanders can also be seen as a shadow for Joseph’s father who was very fond of the athlete at the end of his life and admired his ballet-like moves in the field and his dignified decision to retire at the height of his career. Lauryn Hill and Alice Smith shadow one another not only by jamming in the same location and with the same group of musicians–-although we only catch glimpses of this fact in Fly Paper –but the fuller version of Smith’s session, which occupies the main narrative line in Black Mary, can itself be seen as the shadow of the Hill session that occasioned it, while being also the shadow of the recording session with which it is intercut in the latter film.
The literal shadows, or “dark corners,” in Fly Paper, instead, belong to Joseph’s intense engagement with DeCarava’s photography, and his desire to pay homage to the photographer’s same ground: some of the shots repeat original photographs almost verbatim –a row of tenement houses, dimly lit hallways, human figures as silhouettes in empty Harlem lofts bathed in light coming from oversized windows. When Vereen and Storyboard P engage in an extraordinarily melancholic dance duet mid-way through the film, both of their faces remain in the shadow, in keeping with DeCarava’s style; that is also the case later, when the montage of a percussions-heavy jam session in an empty Harlem loft combines extreme close-ups of the musician’s hands emerging from a deep darkness, feet, and accelerated footage that chases their elongated shadows projected onto a far-away wall: their faces remain obscured the entire time, while the details of their hands, close-ups of their tapping feet, or of the chords of their instruments directly references a plethora of DeCarava’s images.
The film’s shadows embrace also what Teju Cole has described as a desire, shared by contemporary visual artists such as Bradford Young, to be “playing in the dark,” that is, to be committed to an ethics of relation that he has compared to Edouard Glissant’s idea of “opacity” whereby when “we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.” Yet, as in DeCarava, the dark area of the image is often where the image is most vibrant, most soundful. In this sense, Joseph has followed DeCarava’s suggestion that, in Richard Ings’s words, “photography might take the shape of improvisatory music,” and he further amplified the shadow’s ability to channel the unregulated vibrational force of black musicality, to render, as DeCarava put it, “the sound I saw.”
If the beginning of the film is indeed signaled by the appearance of the title, then we can also regard Fly Paper as a melancholic meditation on the “stumble.” Although it shows Vereen on a Harlem sidewalk about to take a step while his voiceover says “A walk on the block…,” what follows is not his walk; nothing ensues from his statement and there is no “narrative” progression. Instead, that his action is not complete evokes the presence of an impending loss or an uncertain movement on an unsteady ground. Perhaps it is a way to foreshadow what might be construed as the most “literal” stumble in the film, suggested by the footage that shows Joseph’s father taking some tentative steps in a hospital room. A later close-up of his head post-brain surgery, with painfully visible stitches, as he is watching Barry Sanders on TV, should be seen within this framework, as the voiceover reflects: “for the first time he felt the presence of that which he did not understand.” But, more broadly, the stumble is perhaps what Andre Lepecki in his close reading of the Fanonian passage that first records the stumble as a reaction to the shattering caused by the hailing of the French child, as well as in his analysis of William PopeL’s crawls, as a deliberate renunciation of the delusion of sovereignty attached to verticality, has described as the difficult negotiation of the “choreopolitical” force of racism. In Fly Paper there are too many dance numbers that do not even attempt to attain a vertical posture and unfold instead with bent knees, semi-crouched backs, against the beat and in poetic defiance of self-sufficiency or self-reliance. Perhaps it is because “every moving body on the racist ground is always already a stumbling one.” Indeed, when Vereen and Storyboard P dance around each other in a dimly lit stairway, they subtly exchange places until the younger dancer, off beat, repeatedly slams his body against the wall, falls on the floor and off the frame and then, quasi-miraculously reemerges with a contortion from the bottom of the frame. It is when we see Vereen fully dressed in a white two-piece suit lying in a bathtub looking pensive and off to the right that we might begin to register the stumble as the hesitant step that occurs under the weight of what one loves and doesn’t want to let go of; the weight of the kinships that make and unmake, the sociality that nurture the community of artists that both engender, and are featured in, the film.
If in classical film theory one measure of assessment of the film frame is its openness to a world that might or might not continue beyond it, in Fly Paper one has the sense that this Harlem community has virtually no boundaries, just like the larger city of which it is part, although it might have a much clearer sense of purpose. “He said the city has to be deciphered like a musical score,” says the voiceover. And yet, the voiceover continues (but here I clumsily paraphrase), one cannot give in to the megalomania of the big city, as we see shots of New Yorkers moving swiftly in and out of subway stations intercut with footage of classical jazz orchestras. Rather, when hearing carefully, one would detect its various parts, “as different and precise as groups of instruments.” The plea is not for formlessness but for the powerful energy that comes from various forms of ensemblic black sociality. And a moment later, the observation that “sometimes musical composition coincided with plain reality,” leads to a series of artists’ parties, casual conversations, and jam sessions. If editing is for Joseph similar to composing a musical score, as he told us when he came to Atlanta for a liquid blackness event dedicated to his work, he also thinks of the collaborative project of filmmaking as a musical ensemble whereby experienced musicians are let free to each play their own instrument according to their own sensibility. Hence the ensemble acts as a structural principle of composition for the film but also, ultimately, for the sociality of mourning, thus expressing Joseph’s commitment to the continuity of artistic lineages of creativity and community. Indeed, the entire film is intercut with shots of art objects: paintings—Barkley L. Hendricks’s Lawdy Mama, works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kevin Beasley, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, among others—or people looking and living with art. These objects too are equal part of the same community.
Towards the end of the film, we see the only video footage of Noah Davis, walking uphill towards the New York City Cloisters followed by a female friend. He is chatting animatedly and, as the film cuts to a view of the South Bronx from that trail and other shots of Harlem apartment buildings shining through a light rain on a still partially sunny day, the voiceover repeats a direct quote from the beginning of Sans Soleil: “he said for him this was the image of happiness. He said he should put it all together one day at the beginning of a film. He said if they don’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” The screen goes completely black for several seconds then the voice of Malcolm X begins to emerge. He is chastising his audience for trusting the white “devil,” for giving in to addiction and for expecting the help of the white man. His words are spun like a vinyl record and the archival footage cut accordingly. Retroactively, as Hilton Als has pointed out, we realize that “it’s as if Joseph’s [entire] visual world were a vinyl record, complete with scratches that make the needle skip, thereby changing the flow of things.”
As Malcolm X’s voice begins to fade away the last montage irrupts to the riveting sound of “Mariposa”: we revisit a lot of the same figures we have seen before, including some of the same art objects but now the film reaches its melancholic height: like a dying butterfly, it is clear it is saying goodbye. So, what is the “black” they will see in the picture? Claudia Rankine has used this same quote to open her masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric, in order to mark the invisibility of racist micro-aggressions, but here black is not only the place for the opacity of black affect. It is not even simply the place where things end, or memories are lost and lost objects become irretrievable; it is also the place where the music comes from, where the ensemble is located, in the shadow… playing and communing in the dark.
The film ends abruptly on a canted shot of Storyboard P shown sideways, as a silhouette against large windows in a top-floor Harlem loft. After a cut, his silhouette is vertical again in a long shot and closer to the window. He shapes his hand into a gun, just like the small child at the beginning of Until the Quiet Comes, and we hear a gunshot before the screen suddenly and briefly goes black.
Then the title FLY PAPER appears again and Vereen, on a Harlem sidewalk says, “A walk on the block”….
 Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
 Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “Interludes in Madtime: Black Music, Madness, and Metaphysical Syncopation.” Social Text 35, no. 4 (2017): 1-31.
 Including, perhaps, the several art shows the late Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph’s brother and the founder of the Underground Museum in LA, who briefly appears in the film, had already planned for it.
 Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
 Until the Quiet Comes (Kahlil Joseph, 2013), Dreams are Colder than Death (Arthur Jafa, 2014), 4:44 (Arthur Jafa, Elissa Blount-Moorhead, Malik Sayeed, 2017)
 Indeed the interplay between the comparative “live” session and the studio session in Black Mary creates the most arresting feature of the film: a tension between sound production and reproduction that evokes the undecidable location of black performance; temporal loopholes that gesture both backwards and forward positing blackness as an unregulated generative force with an always receding origin… a microcosm of the melancholic temporal structure more fully realized in Fly Paper. Black Mary too, is interspersed with signs of loss: sonically, through barely audible exchanges suggesting disbelief, regret, and woundedness; an alarmed phone call; a banging at the door we also hear in Fly Paper; visually, with minimal but intense brushstrokes: for example, the flashing lights of an ambulance parked off screen illuminating the frontal view a row of NYC public telephones.
 Richard Ings, “’And you Slip into the Breaks and Look Around”: Jazz and Everyday Life in the Photographs of Roy DeCarava,” Graham Lock and David Murray, eds., The Hearing Eye: Jazz and Blues Influences in American American Visual Art (Oxford University Press, 2009). Roy DeCarava, the sound i saw: improvisations on a jazz theme (London: Phaidon Press, 2001).
 Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (New York: Routledge, 2006), 105.
 In Atlanta, Joseph told us that he understands editing as a way to control rhythm and pace and immediately invoked Kendrick Lamar as one of his models. See liquid blackness event “Holding Blackness in Suspension: The Films of Kahlil Joseph” and also Tate Talks: Kahlil Joseph & Arthur Jafa in Conversation.
 Als, “The Black Excellence”
 Tyrone Palmer, ““What Feels More Than Feeling?”: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect.” Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 2 (2017): 31-56.
Holding place, Taking flight: Childish Gambino, Bradford Young, Terence Nance, and Grace Jones
Sunday October 7, 3:00 p.m., liquid blackness, a research project on blackness and aesthetics, in collaboration with the ATLARGE Music Film Festival presents a screening of timely works by contemporary black visual artists, musicians, and music video directors followed by a roundtable discussion with scholars Keith Harris (UC, Riverside), Michele Prettyman Beverly, Mercer University) and liquid blackness founder and coordinator Alessandra Raengo (GSU).
Sunday October 7, 3:00 p.m., Kopleff Recital Hall
15 Gilmer St. SE, Atlanta, GA 30303
Works To Be Shown:
- This is America (Childish Gambino, dir. Hiro Murai)
- Black America Again (Common, dir. Bradford Young)
- Jimi Could’ve Fallen From the Sky (dir. Terence Nance)
- Bloodlight and Bami (Grace Jones, dir. Sophie Fiennes)
liquid blackness editorial board member, Lauren Cramer recently had the opportunity to visit Arthur Jafa’s second exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, “Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures,” (May 4-June 10, 2018). Cramer, who helped organize Jafa’s visit to Atlanta and Georgia State University in the spring of 2016 as well as the liquid blackness research project devoted to his film, Dreams are Colder than Death (2013), shares her review of the exhibition below:
Arthur Jafa, akingdoncomethas, Installation View, Gavin Brown Enterprise 2018
I was raised as an Episcopalian, by way of my Jamaican father. I always assumed belonging to the Anglican church in the United States was a colonial holdover, and although I did not spend much time considering the theological implications of empire as I child, I was aware of the paradoxical unfairness of English manners traveling across the ocean while I was expected to maintain impossible stillness and silence in the church pew. At my family church we do not clap or dance, opting to register approval with quiet, smiling nods. Out of sheer boredom, my mother eventually returned to the black Baptist church she was raised in while the rest of us slept in. But after many years, this last Sunday, at an art gallery in Harlem, I went to church.
At the center of Arthur Jafa’s second show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, “Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures,” is the film akingdoncomethas, a montage of filmed sermons and gospel songs performed in black churches from the 1980s to the 2000s. Like Jafa’s acclaimed film love is the message, and the message is death, which debuted at the same gallery almost two years ago, akingdoncomethas renders black creative energy on screen through movement and sound. There is a clear resemblance between both works that express Jafa’s belief that black excellence is an affront to white supremacy. Jafa revisits the same editing philosophy (“dope shit connects to dope shit”)[i] that he used to make love is the message and his 2013 short APEX, both of which explore the broad spectrum of black images in popular culture. However, in akingdoncomethas the artist narrows his focus to black Christianity and brings together footage of prominent figures in black churches like the Bishop T.D. Jakes, Rev. Al Green, and Le’Andria Johnson speaking and singing to crowds of hundreds.
After the success and overwhelming response to his earlier work, the artist has made some meaningful changes. The most obvious change is the running time; akingdoncomethas currently clocks in at 100 minutes and, primarily out of concern about the “eight-minute epiphanies” audiences claimed to have after seeing love is the message, the artist is considering further additions. The extended length is an attempt to evoke the phenomenological experience of sitting in church (which includes moments of inattention and exhaustion). The film is made of long, unedited sermons that allow viewers to experience the exuberance of black worship, but also the less often represented formal complexity of these performances. The songs and sermons shift speeds and directions; strategically employ repetition within improvisation; and, when the tension seems impossibly high, unexpectedly resolve in humor. Rapid intercutting in Jafa’s other work uses graphic and affective parallels in images of violence and vitality to emphasize the power of black expression in the face of antiblackness. Oddly enough, there is a similar effect in the longer takes in akingdoncomethas that reveal the depth and complexity of black religiosity—particularly in the movement between the sacred and secular. For instance, the film’s opening sequence is from a 1974 appearance of the Rev. Al Green, wearing a leisure suit and multiple jeweled rings, on Soul Train. The longing in his voice and in his precise direction of the band in a performance of “Jesus is Waiting” is as devout as it is sexy.
The easy movement between the ecclesiastic and the erotic in the film is what connects akingdoncomethas to the other works in the show, most clearly the portraits of Jafa inspired by a trans woman named Mary Jones, but also the fetish objects in the fourth-floor gallery space playing soul music. As I watched the funny, profound, rapturous, and rehearsed performances, I was reminded of one of my favorite memes from “Black Twitter,” that juxtaposes images of the same person in dramatically different contexts with the caption “get you a [man/woman/person] who can do both” (see here and here). Like the meme, Jafa continues to define black virtuosity in his work as black people moving through different kinds of space and improvising the routes. The duration of akingdoncomethas aims to evoke a particular black experience, but the pacing is also about the belief that black people can do both, and the film insists we sit still to see it.
Jafa’s film helps reconcile the sharp contrast between the spirited celebrations in black evangelical churches on screen and the quiet experience of my family church by exploring these differences through the kinetics of worship. akingdoncomethas is about the movement of call and response and the space that is charged and enlivened by these expressions of black joy and emotion. Jafa has notably chosen scenes from “megachurches;” for example, the film includes a taped performance of the Dallas Fort Worth Mass Choir, which has over 200 members, singing “Another Chance” for an even larger group of parishioners. Like Fred Moten’s “odd to the subprime,” singing, dancing, and celebrating in real estate that would be expensive for even the most charismatic preacher is part of these religious spectaculars. The striking scene of black people expressing community and belonging in arenas is in absolute defiance of the dispossession of blackness.
Although the art gallery does not have a liturgical order, its history and cultural position does dictate the kinds of (quiet) worship and movement that occurs around art; thus, insisting this black gathering occupy several floors in a New York City art gallery is another way Jafa interrogates race, movement, and worship. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise is now located in Harlem, a storied black neighborhood, and in 2018 has already exhibited the work of Jacolby Satterwhite, Frida Orupado, and LaToya Ruby Frazier along with two shows dedicated to Jafa; this is a place that reserves a prominent space for black art and, perhaps more importantly, tries to make this work accessible to black people. Yet, as I walked into the screening space I recognized a hesitancy that I feel when viewing black creative expression in public space. More specifically, the trepidation I felt is about viewing black performances that do not use the language and style codified in MFA programs in spaces like art galleries or academic conferences. Jafa knowingly uses this kind of visual material precisely because, as Sara Ahmed has explained, these spaces are institutionally white as a result of history and habit, regardless of the specific occupancy at any time. Jafa was uncomfortable with the ease in which audiences were moved by love is the message, while I was worried about sitting in a room with people who would not move in response to the call of akingdoncomethas. Whether the concern is about audience reception or the mutual accommodation that occurs when black art is exhibited in fine art galleries, this work and the experience of viewing it asks, “what does it mean to be moved?”
In perfect continuity with my childhood experiences in church, it was impossible for me to sit still during the screening of akingdoncomethas. While I rocked in my seat, hummed, and wiped tears, I was met with a familiar frustrating quiet—Episcopal silence. Although Kirk Franklin’s musical direction took place over a decade ago, I was nervous for him and wanted to protect him from an audience that seemed to be responding to the gallery, but not to him. I felt a similar way watching the recent royal wedding, when Bishop Michael Curry, a black cleric and the most senior member of the Episcopal Church in the United States who was certainly invited to reflect the cultural merging occurring in the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, delivered a rousing sermon to the stoic and confused faces of the British royal family. In both spaces, I wanted to rush out and protect these black people who, in their celebration of God, are actually in the midst of deeply feeling and reacting to their own humanity. The evangelical church’s emphasis on salvation demands the call to be saved is answered, and I could not bear sitting in a room watching black people try to share good news with people who might not be willing to respond, or perhaps are unable to hear the call.
It is easy (for me) to be absorbed by the content of akingdoncomethas, to consider its pacing as a minimalist choice meant to emphasize the events on screen and therefore to worry about how the urgency of a staggering sermon by LaTrice Ryan entitled “By Any Means Necessary” will travel across time and space and land in a white cube. Jafa would likely argue this concern is not necessary. In a public conversation about his work, he explained his goal is to replicate the way black people communicate by creating a work that has an “internal discourse,” meaning the “right” responses have already taken place. In fact, the black sociality that Jafa is describing is a kind of movement and exchange that always occurs in places that blackness does not belong. For instance, it would be remiss if I did not mention that despite the dictates of taste and exclusivity in a major art debut, the quality of the footage edited together in akingdoncomethas is terrible and I have been able to locate almost every piece of it on YouTube. Jafa’s affection for what he calls the “sweet spot” of bad video footage from the 1980s and 90s is a practice in abstraction that makes use of missing visual detail and the loss that occurs in transfer as places for congregation. Perhaps it is a good thing that the noise of akingdoncomethas, both audio and visual, emphasizes the quiet of art reception because the evangelists and their congregants on screen do not actually need a response from the gallery—they’re already on their way. This work is speaking to itself. love is the message makes an emotional appeal to its audience, using Kanye West’s neo-gospel track to bridge the gap between holy and profane. On this occasion, Jafa has cut out the middle-man and anyone else who needs to be moved to join a black celebration.
Jafa does not describe himself as a believer, but he explains “I do believe in black people believing,” which succinctly explains the difference between my childhood experience in church and how I felt on Sunday. I believe that black people believe because they must. Similarly, I believe black people must move, sing, and take up space, which is why I felt so protective over the worshippers on screen who are giving an invitation to people who may do not recognize why black people need faith (in the sacred, the secular, or anything else). But, there is something very savvy in the conversation Jafa is constructing within this film (between evangelicals and their congregations), within the exhibition (the images inspired by sex workers and a film about the church), and across his body of work. The artist knowingly deploys movement, expressiveness, and quiet to grab attention, keep attention, and even exhaust it for the purpose of rendering black excellence as both exceptional and revolutionary and omnipresent and anoriginal. Get you an artist who can do both.
[i] All quotes are from a public conversation between Arthur Jafa and the First Lady of the Zion Hill Baptist, Isis Pickens at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise on June 2, 2018.
Lauren Cramer is Assistant Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Pace University.
For more on the exhibition, “Air Above Mountains” see:
In an engaging profile of poet-scholar Fred Moten recently published in Art News, Adrienne Edwards, curator of performance at the Whitney Museum remarks on the importance of Moten’s In the Break for theories of blackness, both as a racial identity and as an aesthetic category: “From Moten, she gained a sense that ‘blackness itself could fluctuate and circulate and levitate in a way that is not always attributed to it,’ Edwards said. ‘He made it a multiplicity.’” As for Edwards, Moten has likewise had a marked impact on the formation of liquid blackness as a research group primarily focused on aesthetics and on the theorization of blackness as a form of liquidity. This impact is perhaps especially present in our research project, Can Blackness Be Loved? prompted by the work of one of Moten’s frequent collaborators who is also discussed in the Art News profile, Arthur Jafa. Unrolled during the SCMS special events in Atlanta, in the Spring 2016, when Jafa screened Dreams are Colder than Death as well as the yet untitled video of what later became Love is the Message, the Message is Death, this research dove into questions of “Black Ontology and the Love of Blackness” explored so powerfully in Jafa’s film. In his detailed profile, Andy Battaglia describes a recent conversation between Moten and Jafa on the topic of Moten’s latest publication, Black and Blur, the first of his trilogy, consent not to be a single being, during which “Moten described the idea of “blur” to his friend, the artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa, as being defined by those moments ‘when the level of precision goes up but in a way that doesn’t allow you to make simple distinctions between all the elements of whatever it was you were trying to pay attention to.’ He likened it to his ongoing critique of individuation—among people, primarily, but also as it applies to any and all things.” Click here to read more.
Aligned with his critique of individuation and distinction through the concept of blur, in another recent profile of Moten in the New Yorker, Moten emphasizes black studies’ function as institutional critique— its function as a critique of the proper whether speaking of the history of philosophy or the academy itself. “Study,” for Moten, suggest a model of doing intellectual labor otherwise:
We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice . . . The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.
Case in point: take Moten’s humorous explication of his distaste for mayonnaise, which becomes an intellectual examination of the in-between state of an emulsion, echoing the concept of blur:
. . . mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime . . . And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.
The second and third volumes of Moten’s trilogy, consent not to be a single being, will be released this summer.
“What is the point of culture? Culture functions ultimately to ensure the preservation and continuity of a people.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Shirin Neshat, and Mickalene Thomas are among the artists who will launch the first #ArtActionDay on January 20, 2018—the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. Today, a coalition of artists, cultural organizations, and companies like Tumblr and Spotify will host nationwide readings, panel discussions, workshops, and a special Spotify “creativity boost” playlist curated by artist Laurie Anderson.
As stated on their website:
Brought together by Laurie Anderson, Laura Michalchyshyn, and Tanya Selvaratnam, we believe in the need both to heighten our sense of our shared humanity, to work for equality and justice, and to communicate visions of what our world could be. We believe in engaging audiences to secure a more democratic future. The arts must serve as a catalyst to achieve these goals.
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