Black Aesthetic Strategy: Images that Move | Rhea Storr | Mittwoch, 22.09.2021


Affect as a Black Aesthetic Strategy can be a way of inducing movement in others. A product of two bodies in relation, visual and sonic material has the power to evoke emotions within us through the cinematic screen. Theorists such as Sianne Ngai have identified the inadequacies of affect theory when applied to racialised bodies. When affect theory is applied to images of Black life, it can easily become charged by a power dynamic predicated on hypervisibility without power, a simultaneous foregrounding and total dismissal of Black life. 1See Sianne Ngai, ‘Animatedness’ in Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2005). For a discussion on the Western gaze and Black Affect theory see Tyrone S. Palmer, ‘What Feels More Than Feeling?: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect,’ in Critical Ethnic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Fall 2017), 31–56. The portrayal of Black artists as enigmatic, maverick or intuitive, only underlines the pitfalls of theorising Black Affect as purely emotional or sensory. It dismisses the intellectual intent of Black artists and evokes the portrayal of Black people as less than human, feeling but not conscious beings. On the other hand, the feelings of Black people (and Black women in particular) are often erroneously dismissed as excessive or outrageous. All of these seemingly conflicting approaches to affect should be taken into account. A theory of Black Affect can only ever be partial, it cannot encompass the totality of Black experiences.
I am proposing a Black Affect with agency which does not regulate or deny the validity of experiences through Black experimental cinema. Can affect theory be used by filmmakers to define the way that Black bodies move and are moved on screen? How can Black Affect move us as viewer-consumers? I have chosen to discuss As Told To G/D Thyself (2019) and Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016) – two US-based films where the focus on music is central. Whilst prioritising emotion they also chime with capitalist themes such as consumption, excess and failures of the American dream. Although Love is the Message has been written about extensively already, I would like to interrogate it here as a product of affect in contrast to As Told. I will use Silvan Tompkins’ descriptions of affect as a framework to explore Blackness in relation to physicality of the body, emotion and touch. Tompkins defines affect through the following responses: surprise, enjoyment, interest, distress, dismell, disgust, anger, fear and shame. 2Silvan Tompkins, Affect, Imagery, Consciousness: The Complete Edition (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008).
The Ummah Chroma, As Told to G/D Thyself, 2019, Trailer
As Told to G/D Thyself is a series of vignettes set to jazz Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 2018 album, Heaven and Earth. The album flows between resounding chorus and singularity of voice. Repetitive speech and solo saxophone 3Performance of musical instruments in public space is reminiscent of Cauleen Smith’s H-E-L-L-O which uses historically significant sites in New Orleans. contrast a choir and orchestra. The ease of sonic movement, change of rhythm and pace in As Told is matched visually by the intercutting of differing vignettes. We move from sparse interiors such as a kitchen or school corridor, to a wide expanse of scrubland and an eerie forest. The film is made by a collective of filmmakers, The Ummah Chroma, meaning ‘community of colour’, comprised of Terrence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Marc Thomas, Kamasi Washington and Bradford Young. The focus on physical bodies producing affect allows for a loose narrative evoking a music-driven spiritualism, the fate of Black youth, sites of trauma, the warmth of kinship and Black joy. Surprise, joy, excitement, fear, distress – both positive and negative forms of affect are present in the film.
Echoing the aesthetics of the 1974 film Space is the Place (in which Sun Ra is the main protagonist), As Told is highly symbolic in its use of colour, while its meaning is slippery and hard to decipher. A meaning produced between the filmmakers of The Ummah Chroma exemplifies Sara Ahmed’s understanding of affect in her text ‘Affective Economies’. 4Sarah Ahmed, ‘Affective Economies’, in Social Text 79, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Summer 2004), 117–139. Ahmed treats affect from a marxist perspective, an economy generated between bodies in relation, with affect produced through exchange. Ahmed shows how hate speech has been reconstructed as patriotism. Through affect a hatred of migrants finds its voice as a love of country in the US context. As Told contains multiple and overlapping affective economies, ensuring that it is not retold or deciphered so easily. As Nance has stated, it favours ’feeling over comprehensibility,’ working collectively with recurring motifs. ‘Intonation, Intonation, Intonation…’ is incessantly repeated for example, as a boy in the next room plays the saxophone. Collectivity and repetitive symbolism as aesthetic strategy could be used by Black filmmakers who want to escape meaning and produce images which are felt rather than known. This strategy also evokes political or social relations which, without clear meaning, cannot be easily appropriated and reconstructed by others.
The use of physical touch is one way that indefinite or multiple affective economies are made to overlap in the film. In one scene the viewer is disorientated moving through a series of classrooms, weaving through the desks to three children clutching a blanket. The children’s movements portray multiple forms of affect both positive and negative. They evoke capture, smothering and discomfort by wrapping others in the blanket but they also express playfulness, joy and desire for the soft object. Physical touch is juxtaposed with the immaterial presence of light and reflection. This ephemeral motif recurs in the form of a triangular-shaped mirror. As with the physical presence of the body, reflections serve to both guide and confuse, producing bodies in mediated presence. As Washington holds up the triangular mirror, his own face is obscured for the image of a boy who stands opposite him in the scrubland. They appear to us as one body with the torso of Washington and the face of the young boy. Is Washington looking into the face of the boy as the future or past? I want to suggest that the use of mirrors portrays subjects which seek to image themselves in the midst of shifting and indecipherable meaning, to image a symbolic interior of the Black body.

Meaning inscribed upon racialised bodies is multifaceted and complex. Touch contrasted with immateriality in the film allows its subjects the freedom to see across space, through darkened corridors and back into the past/future as a younger self. The dichotomy of touch and immateriality are affects which allow one to flourish like the blossoming garden which concludes the film, as a Black subject whose body is a floating signifier, always between meaning.
1_As-told-to g:d thyself.jpeg 138.35 KB
The Ummah Chroma, As Told To G/D Thyself, 2019, film still, courtesy of the artists and Sundance Institute
In addition to touch and the immaterial, As Told also ascribes fantastical qualities to the subjects it depicts. Bodies do things that they are physically incapable of ordinarily. The film summons an afrofuturist-like freedom from the laws of nature. In what appears as an epic battle scene, two of the children fly through the air in suspended slow motion whilst the others charge at each other on the ground. Elsewhere, a man holds two invisible dogs, empty leashes with the occasional flash of golden light. The leashes tug on his arm, the weight of these invisible dogs menacing towards the boys who approach. Scared by the animals, the boys jump and disappear through the solid brickwork of a house. One boy struggles to make it through the wall, as if making sure we understand the power (and yet immateriality) of their bodies to push through solid matter. There is a sort of futile power to this imaginative world, which does not need to adhere to reality and yet perhaps speaks to the way in which Black lives become visible in US society. Black filmmakers could utilise this play between material/immaterial and the weighted/flying body as a way of imagining how Black life might escape forms of oppression.
2_kamasi_hon-0200-1780x1001.jpeg 179.47 KB
The Ummah Chroma, As Told To G/D Thyself, 2019, film still, courtesy of the artists and Sundance Institute
In contrast to As Told, Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death uses a vast montage of sources which depict US Black life. Notable cultural and political figures such as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Beyoncé and Hortense Spillers are interspersed with footage from music videos, images of dance and worship, police brutality and violence towards Black people. Love Is the Message uses montage to produce an affective economy through the rapid placement and replacement of images alongside one another. It is between these images that meaning is negotiated, in what Jafa calls an ‘affective proximity’. Similarly to As Told, the film pays particular attention to the physicality of Black bodies. Christina Knight narrates falling within the film as a ‘triangulation between falling for (love), falling down (injury), and falling out (ecstasy) in the everyday lives of Black subjects’. 5Christina Knight, ‘Feeling and Falling in Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death’, The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research, Vol 49, No. 3 (2019), 36–47. To focus solely on falling however, negates other bodily movements within the film; a crowd on its feet, various images of clapping, jumping and group dances. Bodies in Love is the Message (‘Bodies’, not ‘subjects’, as we encounter them decontextualised from their original footage) don’t offer one clear path to meaning but show the heterogeneity of Black experiences.
Where As Told is made collectively, Love is the Message is Jafa’s brainchild, a singular voice collecting many sources in montage. Jafa terms his vision for Black cinema as ‘Black Visual Intonation’, a term which aims to transport the successes of Black music to a visual field. Aria Dean writes that ‘Jafa’s Black Visual Intonation (BVI) seeks to undo regulation by using nonmetronomic frame rates, or digital editing that emulates that effect… If black music treats sound as unstable, so black cinema treats time as inherently unstable as well.’ Instability through overstimulation and confusion of time makes it impossible to contextualise every image in Love is the Message. This errant time could be described as syncopation, ‘a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat’. When the organising principle or format of the film is described in these terms, it is possible to see how, by stressing the rhythm and abundance of Black imagery, Jafa creates a sense of tension and displacement. Non-dominant forms of filmmaking which endeavour to stress the ‘weak beat’ – in other words the marginalised – could employ syncopation to confuse traditional renderings of time in film.
3_until the quiet comes.jpg 204.96 KB
Kahlil Joseph, Until the Quiet Comes, 2013, film still, which is also featured in Love is the Message, the Message is Death. In Joseph’s music video for Flying Lotus, time moves backwards from the point of Black death.
Love is the Message is set to the music of Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam, which features the renowned gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Jafa taps into a Pentecostal spirituality which relates to the history of Black struggle. Many US Black Churches originate from the worship of freed Black people in the face of segregation. Rather than the self-reflexive spirituality present in As Told we see, for instance, Barack Obama initiate a moving chorus of ‘Amazing Grace’ with members of the Church who are quick to lend their voices to the collective song. He attends the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, a Senator and Reverend murdered in 2015. The spiritual conviction of Love is the Message carries with it an affective mourning, protest, triumph and joy in one breath. If ‘this is a God dream’ as Kanye states, it is both fearful and ecstatic.
4_love is the message.jpg 27.96 KB
Arthur Jafa, Love is the Message, the Message is Death, 2016, installation shot, 2019. From the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
For whom is this moving-image montage made? It could be perceived on the face of it, as educating non-Black audiences on some of the complexities and struggles that Black Americans face. Black audiences might also be moved by the images depicted. Nevertheless, Love is the Message can also be understood as a fetish commodity, consumed by those who continue to revel in fascination at Black trauma. Its status as commodity, to which its popularity is testament, is a result of the film’s reliance on affect. The film is after all preoccupied with production and consumption which inadvertently gives it currency. I am not sure that Love is the Message, the Message is Death can escape its own excesses. The film explores affect in relation to the physical body, the body emoting, sensations and spirituality. But what good is affect to Black filmmakers if it provides more fodder for Black subjects to be consumed as the ‘other’? Where do we go from here? I would dare to dream (but not a God dream) of a Black experimental cinema which explores a direct affect, one which feels without the depiction of a body at all. I propose direct affect not as erasure of the Black body but a refusal to be implicated in the politics which seek to consume it.