Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Testament Project at Bryn Mawr College

"Jessica" by Kris Graves
Kris Graves' The Testament Project, currently on view at Bryn Mawr College, is a powerful engagement of the visual and emotional senses.

The artist presents carefully constructed photographs of Black people larger than life and sublimely doused in bright color. They are images of Black faces, some steadily holding the viewer's gaze, some looking beyond the reach of the camera. To a vision? To a dream deferred? The mystery is part of what is so affecting about this exhibit.

The colors confront the viewer's assumptions of what people of color are, what they look like, and how they negotiate the space they inhabit. The artist makes clear that his subjects collaborated with him on how they were presented in the portraits, lending an element of control that disrupts the traditional imbalanced relationship between the viewer and the object being viewed.

The Testament Project is installed in the Canaday Library's Rare Book Room, where Black faces keep sentinel over dusty medieval books, the canon of an ensconced tradition of White-conceived "humanities." The faces demand to know: "Who controls education? Who controls the values of our society? Who is allowed to be in here?"

They ask the nearby portrait of M. Carey Thomas, a revered administrator of Bryn Mawr College from 1894 to 1922, and a (reputedly) queer suffragist who opposed marriage on the principle that it led to loss of freedom for women. She also steadfastly refused admission to women of color into the school. "Who belongs here?" the faces ask, intently. "Who gets to read these books, write more books, be the faces of advancement and the future?" The faces - powerfully - insist on engagement on their own terms. "Here we are," they say. "We are exactly who we are."

By hosting such an exhibition, College invites the confrontation of these questions. It is an especially timely invitation, given several on-campus racial conflicts in recent years. The artist's wish to "create a space that is participatory and empowered" is possible here. We would be collectively improved to pursue it.

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