LOUISVILLE, Ky — At this moment in America, it is hard to imagine a more consequential exhibition than Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville —Breonna Taylor’s hometown. 

The exhibition brings together new, recent, and, occasionally, older works, some from the museum’s collection, by both national and local artists — all but one Black. It has opened more than a year after the police killing of Breonna Taylor, who is at the core of this show, as are the impassioned protests in Louisville and around the country for racial justice and police accountability.

Organized in just a few months — warp speed for a major museum — it also opened, coincidentally, during the excruciating trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, now convicted of murdering George Floyd.  

None of the three white officers who unleashed a 32-shot fusillade shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, and shot Taylor six times in her apartment, was criminally charged for her death. One has been charged with wanton endangerment, for putting not Taylor at risk, but her neighbors. For many in Louisville, this is justice painfully denied.

Thoughtfully and sensitively curated by Allison Glenn, as associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the exhibition commemorates Taylor, while situating her story within the fraught national context of police violence against people of color, rampant gun violence, and a reckoning with systemic racism led by Black Lives Matter protesters.

Installation view, Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky

Older works, alas, are spot on. Kerry James Marshall’s somber portrait “Lost Boys: AKA BB” (1993) is from a series addressing the oppression and deaths of young Black men by gun violence. Lorna Simpson’s searing “Same” (1991), composed of 16 Polaroids, presents four pairs of Black women, their backs to the camera, their long hair seemingly braided together. The different women face the same biases and discrimination, described in accompanying short texts: “were let go for the same reasons,” “were disliked for the same reasons,” “read the news accounts and knew it could have easily been them.”

From the outset, Glenn opted for an unusually collaborative approach, cultivating relationships with what she calls “stakeholders”: Breonna Taylor’s family, local artists and activists, the museum’s community relations strategist, Toya Northington, and a Louisville steering committee.  She convened a national panel of advisors. A great deal of what she terms “listening and learning” went into this beautifully installed show, which decisively transforms a venerable museum with a longstanding white European and American orientation. During the show, museum entry is free.  

The chief stakeholder is Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother. When I asked how important her interaction with Palmer has been, Glenn responded, “paramount.” The exhibition’s title (which also title its three sections), arose from Glenn’s many conversations with Palmer. 

The centerpiece of “Remembrance” — and of the exhibition — is Amy Sherald’s oil on canvas, “Breonna Taylor” (2020), jointly acquired by the Speed and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Nick Cave, “Unarmed” (2018) cast bronze, metal, and vintage beaded flowers (courtesy the artist)

There are many in Kentucky, including Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who wish to get beyond the Breonna Taylor tragedy, to make no substantial changes in policing, and perhaps forget about her altogether, as has happened so many times before in Louisville and throughout the country. Sherald’s painting insists otherwise.  

Upon entering the show, the painting is immediately visible, but it is far off, a magnetic force framed by two holdovers from the collection two rooms away, both ultra-white early 20th-century figurative sculptures made in marble by white artists. It is the lone work in a large room painted dark purple; according to Glenn, purple was Taylor’s favorite color. Encountering it is deeply moving. 

Sherald presents Breonna Taylor as confident, thoughtful, and proud, with one hand on her hip. Wearing a resplendent blue dress, her skin painted the artist’s signature dark gray, she stands before an ethereal, lighter blue, background. Her gaze direct, she is present, but also in the hereafter. Details matter: Taylor’s complex expression, her engagement ring (on the night she was murdered, her fiancée, Kenneth Walker, was with her), her blue earring, the small gold cross dangling from her delicate necklace. In a recent Zoom talk hosted by Hauser & Wirth, the artist discussed how significant her conversations with Tamika Palmer were, as well as the access she was granted to family photographs, videos, and stories.

A timeline of Taylor’s life, written by Palmer, carries across two walls. Her love and respect for her daughter are palpable, as is her outrage. These entries characterize Taylor as an “easy” child with “an old soul,” a good student who loved “singing, skating and bike riding,” a hardworking young woman excited about her prospects, a dedicated medical worker. The final entry — March 13, 2020, with “our lives would be shattered forever” — is heartrending.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, “Butterfly Eyes (for Breonna Taylor)” from the series In the year of the pandemic, in the month of the awakening (2021), mixed medium, watercolor, ink, gouache, digital print on Arches archival paper (courtesy the artist and Wendi Norris Gallery, San Francisco)

Jon-Sesrie Goff’s riveting video, “A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield” (2016), addresses the 2015 massacre, by a white supremacist, of nine Black church members at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including senior pastor and state senator Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. The video focuses not on this atrocity but on its aftermath: Goff gathered footage from after the shooting to express the centrality and resilience of Mother Emmanuel, as the church is often called, in Charleston’s Black community. 

Artist Nick Cave’s bronze cast of his own hand, as if pointing a pistol, surrounded by beaded flowers, memorializes the many unarmed Black people murdered by police (“Unarmed,” 2018). Another floral work, María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s gorgeous, tripartite, mixed-media “Butterfly Eyes (for Breonna Taylor)” (2021), signals transformation and spiritual insight.

“Promise” opens the show with a series of works that reconstruct national symbols to emphasize the disparity between the principles of democracy and freedom and the historical and continuing discrimination against people of color in America. Two large blue flags on poles by Hank Willis Thomas, resembling stately American flags, sport thousands of white stars for the number of people killed by guns in 2019 and 2020. Nari Ward’s “We the People” (2011) renders the famous three words across the wall in multicolored shoelaces. Though 10 years old, the work recognizes the many people who took to the streets in Louisville, demanding justice for Breonna Taylor.

Treasured Louisville sculptor Ed Hamilton’s bronze bust of a Black Union soldier (“Untitled,” 2000) memorializes the 200,000 Black men who fought in the Union Army and Navy, and who have rarely been acknowledged in American history. This space resounds at the bottom of each hour not with the familiar, uplifting national anthem — written by Francis Scott Key, scion of  a Maryland plantation family and a slave owner — but with a mournful, abolitionist version sung by tenor Anton Seals. This work, “The Star Spangled Banner” by Bethany Collins (2021), is powerful and haunting.

Installation view, Promise, Witness, Remembrance at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky

“Witness” focuses on artists responding to convulsive times they’ve experienced in the United States. Sam Gilliam, who grew up in Louisville, made his cloud-like, colorful abstract painting “Carousel Form II” (1969) — one of his innovative “Drape” paintings — during the tumultuous Civil Rights and Vietnam War era. Dispensing with the conventional limitations of painting and display, and expectations that Black artists deal in representation, the work, suspended in mid air, looks as fresh and unrestrained now as it did 51 years ago, when it was on the cover of Art in America (September/October 1970). 

Eight striking photographs (all 2020, printed in 2021) by local photographers encapsulate the dedication and emotion of the Louisville protests. In T. A. Yero’s black and white “Who has the power?” a woman, one fist upraised, confronts advancing police. A resolute crowd marches on Attorney General Cameron’s office in Xavier Burrell’s “SAY HER NAME!!” Tyler Gerth’s untitled, richly detailed black and white photograph of a June protest is mesmerizing. Shortly after, the talented Gerth was shot and killed at another protest, at the age of 27. Jon P. Cherry’s “Open Up the Cells” pictures the ardent 21-year-old activist and protest leader Travis Nagdy, megaphone in hand. Two months later he died by gun violence in an unrelated incident. 

Nearby, Terry Adkins’s “Muffled Drums (from Darkwater)” (2003) — eight marching-band drums stacked in a tower — refers to the legendary 1917 Silent Protest Parade for racial justice, organized by the NAACP, in which some 10,000 Black participants marched down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to the beat of drums. The exhibition links the origins of civil rights in America directly to the Louisville protests.

Amy Sherald, “Breonna Taylor” (2020), oil on canvas (courtesy Amy Sherald)

Promise, Witness, Remembrance is refreshingly uncluttered. Artworks invite sustained engagement, while thematic, as well as visual (and sometimes sonic) correspondences develop between diverse and often widely dispersed works. 

The phrase “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE,” repeated in big vinyl letters, wraps around the walls near the ceiling in “Witness.” The work, by Alisha B. Wormsley, from her interdisciplinary Afrofuturist project of the same title (2011–ongoing), is both fiercely defiant and optimistic. 

Wormsley’s piece especially connects to the second-to-last work, Kahlil Joseph’s remarkable “fugitive video” (according to the museum label) BLKNWS® (2018–ongoing). Wildly eclectic digital information, sometimes hard hitting, sometimes humorous, culled from archival material, Instagram posts, films, internet memes, music videos, interviews, television broadcasts, and many other sources, is montaged in this two-channel, guerrilla newscast of Black culture and experience, presented from the perspectives of Black people, ranging from artists and celebrities to musicians and activists. It is a poignant conclusion to this exceptionally meaningful show, one that should stir any visitor, regardless of race.

Promise, Witness, Remembrance continues at the Speed Art Museum (2035 South Third Street
Louisville, Kentucky) through June 6.

Gregory Volk is a New York-based art critic, freelance curator, and associate professor in the Department of Sculpture + Extended Media and the Department of Painting + Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth...