At Gavin Brown Enterprise’s cavernous former space at the heart of Harlem, a massive screen, dozens of feet across, plays a slow-roving video on a loop. A burning sun bleats over choppy waves, undulating slowly with what looks like floes of black ice, eventually revealing itself to be painstakingly rendered molten, igneous surfaces. The camera creeps forward almost imperceptibly over a droning sound. Supported by Gladstone gallery, Arthur Jafa’s AGHDRA, pronounced “ahg-hee-dra,” with an emphasis on the middle syllable, is a glacial, abstract meditation on Blackness, the perpetual trauma of the transatlantic slave trade and the way those histories might play into the climate and refugee crises today.
In the 85-minute film, stones jut in and out, and even intersect each other, in a slow rhythm that recalls breathing. And like Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which memorializes countless deaths with uneven concrete stelae, it also implies individual lives dissolving into each other and across time. A low moan, almost a keening, spills liquidly from the speakers, rising with soft, spare music: muffled grunting, not quite words, over a drumbeat. It is as mesmerizing as it is unsettling, a slow-motion burlesque with no reveal, almost claustrophobic in its immensity. Waves sometimes threaten to overtake the screen—and they often do, eclipsing the theater in dread and darkness until the sun reappears.
AGHDRA differs vastly in tone from Jafa’s most iconic work to date, the frenetic-paced, quick-hitting Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016), which spliced together clips of historic Black figures, videos from social media and footage of police killings over Kanye West’s operatic “Ultralight Beam.” Released during the adrenaline-lined backdrop of the 2016 Trump election and the ascendance of white nationalism, the seven-minute film was the anthem and drumbeat of a revolution—maybe even of the hope and despair of a movement.
Jafa’s new film hits different crescendos and climaxes. Its length and experimental rhythm, for example, make it more difficult to view. AGHDRA runs for 85 minutes. When music plays—bluesy, distorted tracks by Black singers—the screen dispenses. The film’s pacing induces the mind to wander, to pace its own internal rhythms, its private itinerant musings, in the collective space of that dimmed room. Yet one is always pulled back by a specific image: the shimmer of sunlight on a temporary hedge, the light catching upon droplets of water to create a haze.
This gallery space — the same one where Love Is the Message was first screened five years ago—is located at the heart of a neighborhood with a century-long history of Black cultural and philosophical production. And it is also located far from the company of other galleries: no visitors can pop next door to a neighboring space. There’s no dipping in and out of images along a street of linked universes, as in the downtown gallery circuit. To come here is a certain commitment; to stay, a collective acknowledgment, a collective transmutation of peers in silhouetted Rückenfigurs against a wide and animated sublime. In the hour I spent—longer than any exhibition in recent memory, though short of AGHDRA’s runtime—numerous people trickled in. Spellbound, no one left. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Arthur Jafa, AGHDRA, 2021. Video still © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery