In Testaments, artist Kris Graves invokes a diverse vocabulary of portraiture to bear witness to contemporary Black experience. The richly hued brilliance of the 80 portraits—made between 2014-19—that comprise The Testament Project underscores the power of self-representation, when portraiture becomes a consciously collaborative act. Here, the artist cedes to his subjects —all family, friends, and acquaintances—control over vividly colored lighting that illuminates and seemingly radiates from their faces. Each individual’s choices reflect the expressive capacities of color, in all of its nuances, to reveal uniqueness. The resulting grid evokes the awe and reverence of stained glass.
In other images, Graves portrays subjects in states of absorption, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the camera and immersed in interior thought. Gregory 2015, submerged up to his shoulders in a calm sea, gazes into the distance, while, in Daydreaming 2020, a child, wearing a party balloon crown, sits atop a bank of laundromat washing machines, distracted by something just out of view. These states of reverie are short lived, however. As installed in the Baldeck-Hollis Gallery, Gregory and the child at the laundromat face a central monitor screening a looping video iteration of The Testament Project. Here, a succession of women, bathed in the same shifting colored light, gaze directly at the viewer. In a voiceover, one relays her experiences working for a New York staffing firm that served clients who actively engaged in racial discrimination. Her monologue begins, “My voice does not sound like a Black person, apparently. That’s what they tell me…” The bitter reality of her testimony, lingering just beyond the frame, threatens to shatter the serenity enjoyed by Gregory and the child, suggesting that tranquility becomes unattainable in a nation plagued by racial injustice and violence.
Graves’s George Floyd Projection bring striking visual clarity to this message. It is here that the portrait’s—and the photograph’s—facility to memorialize becomes hauntingly present. Here, Graves photographs Richmond’s graffiti-encrusted equestrian monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, when artists Alex Criqui and Dustin Klein projected George Floyd’s face onto the statue’s stone base. Graves’s image poignantly captures the commanding graphic potency of Floyd’s visage—rendered solely in light—visually overtaking the material substantiality of bronze and stone. Here, the portrait speaks; it speaks of the ephemerality of life, the might of light, and the power of representation in the quest for justice.
Curated by Deborah Barkun, Creative Director of the Berman Museum of Art