In November 2021, Arthur Jafa premiered AGHDRA, his first sizable video work of the new decade. A non-narrative 90-minute slow dive into roiling black CGI substrate, it came five years after his international breakthrough Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016), a searing video essay on Black US life that burned a bright hole through an art world thawing from frigid formalism toward politically minded work. A half-decade and untold miles of aesthetic and conceptual distance lie between these two works. And Brooklyn Museum offers a chance to view a crucial halfway point. Jafa’s akingdoncomethas (2018) is part of The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in the Art of Our Time, the museum’s mutable, multi-limbed exhibition grappling with the successive ruptures of the 2020s.
Running a hefty 100 minutes, akingdoncomethas looks at the sermons and rituals of Black churchgoing in the United States. In signature Jafa style, it is a composite of found internet footage sutured together with Black music, ranging from Al Green and Gil Scott-Heron to the high drama of choir and congregation. The title references a millenarian view of the Biblical rapture as the birth of an overdue kingdom, and throughout the film, preachers promise hard-won peace in the hands of an all-loving, all-knowing Christ. In between these salvos of salvation come high-definition footage of raging forest fires, of riders on horseback under a choked orange sky. It’s joy everlasting vs. Hell on Earth.
In the context of The Slipstream, the “message” of akingdoncomethas seems easy to decipher. It is located in the exhibition’s section on “Belief,” near a Karon Davis sculpture of a nurse on a smoke break, across the great hall from Paul Ramirez Jonas’s cork rendering of a colonial monument. Amidst pandemic and protest, the sermons offer not just joy, but also the possibility of togetherness. A common refrain is for a congregation to reach out and touch their neighbors — in a COVID-era show, that command is doubly meaningful.
But a more interesting reading comes from viewing the piece within the continuum of his career. In the comet-tail glow of Love is the Message’s fawning reception, Jafa began to express discomfort with the way certain audiences seemed to find catharsis in its depiction of suffering. He characterized the piece as potentially “manipulative,” producing what he called “microwave epiphan[ies] about blackness,” and one could see how its chorus of survival-in-spite could generate a sense of placeless and unfocused pathos. It may have seemed to Jafa that through their tears, white audiences could forget just who begat the violence onscreen.
And so, a turn. Jafa seems intent on ensuring that his subject — what he calls “Black potention” — can not be corralled into an easily legible form to be consumed and discarded after a quick hit of catharsis. In akingdoncomethas, suffering is only alluded to as a hyperobject, channeled through voice and song instead of witnessed through bodycam and newsreel. The work is an anti-monument, diffuse and forward-looking rather than concrete and memorial. Its depictions of prayersongs offer no lesson or historical corrective. The video is displayed large and in low resolution, pixelating its subjects so their faces never fully cohere. The collaged sonics often trouble the clarity of the sermons, and the closed captioning is shot through with mistranslations and “inaudible”s. The message is garbled, there is no “message.”
At one point, a preacher recalls his grandmother telling him that when he’s unable to speak, he should “wave, wave” his hands. In Jafa’s project, the moment in which speech crumbles into pure expression is key. With akingdoncomethas, we can see his career begin to inscribe a similar arc, moving past narrative to conjure a formless futurity. With this in mind, AGHDRA’s rising black sea feels inevitable: In the waves, a future, a kingdom to come.
akingdoncomethas is on view as part of The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in the Art of Our Time, at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) through April 10.