Kris Graves’ latest series, The Testament Project uses portraiture, video interviews and anonymously submitted written testimonials to explore the varied experience of contemporary Black masculinity in America. Graves examines various media driven stereotypes in an effort to uncover their deep roots of institutionalized racism. For Graves, and many of the men he’s photographed and interviewed, these ideas transcend class and geography, and are a constant reminder that despite significant progress, our nation has much to overcome.
Testament, which is broken into several sub-projects, began with Glowan, studio portraits of Graves' friends and colleagues bathed in ominous green, orange and purple hues. The men – sometimes directly engaging with the viewer, at other times gazing into empty space, call to mind aura-photographs, which were intended to reveal signals about a subjects personality. Unlike aura photographs which served as pseudo scientific representations, Graves' are entirely collaborative, his subjects having full control over the colors that represent them. “The model, who is usually someone I am directly connected to,” says Graves, “sits down with a tablet connected to the lights and I sit for them so they can see the colors they are changing in real-time. The model chooses their color combination, we switch places and I photograph them in many different positions.” In a sense, this process of collaboration might serve to give greater agency to his subjects towards creating their own representations. Each image is simply titled by the subject’s first name, and while we know little about his identity beyond the significance of clothes or gaze, the control each person helps them to exist, at least in an illusory sense, without anonymity.
Glowan leads into a second series of more straightforward studio portraits called Studio, 1. The photographs are also collaborative and Graves photographs each man with a similar gesture and pose, but with more traditional studio lighting, stripped of Glowin’s gelled rainbow of color. Unlike Glowan, Graves titles each Studio 1 image by the subject’s profession – for example, “The Producer,” “The Entrepreneur,” “The Businessman,” “The Senior Network Engineer,” which may parallel, or counter a tendency to reduce these men to categories or caricatures. “Black men in America are portrayed in the extreme,” writes Graves, “either as very rich or very poor, they are demonized, infantilized, ridiculed, idolized or hyper-sexualized; and within the art canon there is a noticeable scarcity of black male representation.”
Testament has more recently evolved into anonymously submitted written testimonials, as well as Testimony, a series of video interviews co-produced with Thomas Chatterton Williams and Sarah Fajardo, with many of the same men describing their unique personal experiences with stereotyping and racism in everyday life. Like Glowan and Studio 1, Graves’ video testimonials, which exist in their unedited entirety, give further agency to each of his’ subjects as they respond to a specific question: “Have you ever experienced discrimination?”
The responses vary, each shedding a uniquely personal light on the many layered complexity of being a man within America's African diaspora. “Story #11 – The Corporation,” for example, offers the testimonial of a man whose “well meaning” white colleagues were shocked by his accomplishments, based on their preconceived notions of “What an African American male should be capable of…” In Story #15: The African + American, Larry Ossei-Mensah accounts his experience feeling like a minority when he attended Clark, a largely white university in Worcester Massachusetts, after growing up in the culturally diverse Bronx, as well as the complexity of being a child of Ghanaian immigrants, and how that shaped his identity.
“I really would like the men in the project to keep their own voices,” says Graves. “I don't want to be the one to critique the statements they make. I can't speak for everyone’s feelings pertaining to black men, but I know that this country has a big problem that is getting worse with the increasing income gap and problems of racist mass incarceration. All of the men involved in the Testament are speaking from the heart and that is exactly what this project is about. I back every word” Read more from Kris in this interview with Hamidah Glasgow on Strange Fire Collective.
Bio: Kris Graves creates portraits and landscape to preserve memory. The images' stillness cause the viewer to acknowledge the inevitability of change, and the passage of time in both the natural and built environment. These views will never be exactly as they were at their precise recorded moment. Graves suspends his belief and knowledge of this change, not to document a moment or state, but rather to sustain it. When thinking of landscapes, Graves focuses on the volatile – land that is ever changing. New developments alter the physical and mental space of the city, constantly renewing and re-imagining topography and usage.