The New York art world fell hard for Arthur Jafa five years ago, when, at the now-defunct Harlem location of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, he debuted Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016), a kaleidoscopic video essay about Black America that brings together more than a hundred appropriated images and videos in the span of a fast-paced seven and a half minutes. Five years later, at the same space in on 127th Street, Jafa is showing his latest work, a new film called AGHDRA (2021) that takes his work in a much different direction. The film contains just a handful of cuts; all of the footage is original. It alludes to some of the concerns Jafa explored in Love Is the Message—the tenuousness of Black life, and the twinned notions of beauty and fear that can accompany it—but this new film does so in relatively oblique ways. Gone is the music video–style pacing of Jafa’s past works. In its place is a slower kind of montage that inspires introspection.
AGHDRA—its title is pronounced “ahg-HEE-druh”—marks a sedate, pensive turn for Jafa, whose work has never lent itself to easy readings. Every image in this 85-minute film is of a rolling ocean whose computer-generated waves rise but never quite crest. At times, the camera gently floats down toward this imagined ocean, which appears to be made of oil or magma, not water. Speaking by Zoom from his studio in Los Angeles ahead of the show’s opening on Saturday, Jafa jokingly described it as a “really complicated screensaver.”
Jafa is renowned for dealing head-on with race, in works such as The White Album (2018–19), a 40-minute essay on whiteness and the limits of empathy, which earned him the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion award in 2019. AGHDRA, which will be on view for four weeks, does not function in quite the same way. The film—which comes with a soundtrack so intense it could be described as immersive—is deliberately slippery, and even though its central aquatic image is repeated over and over, sometimes with mild variations in color, AGHDRA refuses to give up its secrets. “I’m kind of resistant to saying, ‘This is about X, Y, and Z,’” Jafa noted. Neither its made-up title nor its booming soundtrack connotes anything immediately obvious. But Jafa is quick to unfurl his films as complex, indefinable things open to multiple readings. His limitless ocean could be treated as a post-Anthropocene space or as a metaphor for endless waves of violence, although neither interpretation captures the work’s full meaning.
Jafa eventually went on to suggest that the film is intimately related to a feeling of impending—and unending—catastrophe. “What happens when people experience it over and over and over and over for a protracted amount of time?” he asked. “What does it mean to be in the universe, an anti-Black universe? I wonder what it really means, like what it feels like—not on the level of ‘we need to protest,’ which is obviously true—to be a quote-unquote Black person. I’m so saturated with anti-Blackness. I hear a tsunami of microaggressions.”
He added, “At what point [are] the effects of anti-Blackness just a given, something that defines who we are?”
Jafa began thinking about AGHDRA two years ago, well before the pandemic struck and prior to George Floyd’s murder last summer. He has worked on it, on and off, ever since. (The film debuted at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, earlier this year; the new version screening in New York has been re-edited.) AGHDRA’s origins could be traced to Jafa’s 2019 visit to Tokyo, where his son and a friend saw Godzilla: King of Monsters at a multiplex. Some, including Jafa, have viewed Godzilla as one means by which the Japanese have processed post–atomic bomb trauma. In a similar vein, Jafa found himself wanting to create a “supreme mass,” one that would make people of all walks of life “fall to their knees.”
A French studio specializing in computer-generated imagery helped make AGHDRA. Directors usually provide post-production studios at least a loose picture of what they’re looking for. Jafa’s instructions were vaguer. He knew he wanted a wave of some kind, but he asked the studio to produce something of “a cross between a [J.M.W.] Turner painting and John Coltrane.” The result is an undulating expanse that resembles a sea of colliding boulders. Jafa has since realized one reading of it could be “the North American continent fragmented into a hundred thousand pieces.”
He first showed some footage from AGHDRA at a 2020 MoMA PS1 event honoring the theorist Saidiya Hartman, whose work has considered the incompleteness of written histories, specifically as they relate to Black women. It was an appropriate occasion for the work, given that Jafa wanted to invoke, by more abstract means, the transatlantic slave trade and the Black lives lost in the mid-Atlantic. (Jafa also mentioned various writings by Christina Sharpe, Fred Moten, and Tina Campt, along with the science fiction of Thomas M. Disch and the music of Miles Davis, as being among his inspirations for AGHDRA.)
“It’s like being chained in a slave ship, and they open the hold, and you look up for a split second and see the sky, or maybe the night,” Jafa said of the experience of viewing this film. “It’s a kind of Turrell,” he added, referring to artist James Turrell, who is known for his otherworldly installations that enlist intense lighting effects and natural environments. “But it’s a Turrell while you’re chained in the bottom of a boat.”
Watching AGHDRA, one may cycle through disorientation, nausea, horror, disgust, awe, and transcendence. Projected on a gigantic screen in an otherwise vacant space, the film is paired with a low hum that is played so loudly it can be felt in one’s ribcage. Various appropriated songs are also included in the soundtrack at points, but they, too, are emitted from a set of oversized speakers at such a volume that it is hard to distinguish their lyrics. This hulking film is an example of what Jafa has termed “Black visual intonation,” an impulse toward rendering both image and sound unstable. “When the image is pitched down and the sound is pitched down, there’s something about being in that space that’s sort of like an undercurrent,” Jafa said, referring to the film’s bass-heavy soundtrack.
And indeed, many viewers are likely to find themselves lured into AGHDRA’s riptide by its strange beauty. Although Jafa is unafraid to tout his new show’s more terrifying aspects (he views the now-disused gallery space where it’s installed as something “like the Overlook Hotel” of The Shining), he also considers AGHDRA a potentially attractive image of an organism that exist in the aftermath of an ecological disaster. “It’s this mass, like plankton or something, this neural network,” he said, chuckling to himself. “This is my vision of future Black people.”