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: