by Alicia Dietrich
When Adraint Bereal (B.F.A., Design, 2020) embarked on his senior Design capstone project last summer, he knew conceptually what he wanted to do—document the experiences of undergraduate Black students at The University of Texas at Austin in a fine art book. The details for his process and the format were still emerging, but Bereal was drawn to the idea of shining a light on the diverse stories of Black students and their time at UT.
On a campus where Black students make up only 4.9% of the undergraduate population, Bereal wanted to create a publication that showcased images and stories that have been historically underrepresented on campus. The Black Yearbook is now completed and will begin shipping next month.
“I hope Black students are able to hold up a mirror to themselves while reading this and are able to not only reflect on their personal experiences, but how other Black students are dealing with being here as well,” Bereal said. “It doesn't look the same for everyone. I do think there's a common thread we all share through our identity, but outside of that, I think our lives are vastly different.”
In 2018, he had his first solo exhibition at the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin, where he exhibited images from his project “1.7.” The number represents the percentage of Black men in UT’s student population. For the project Bereal photographed Black male students and interviewed them about their experiences, asking each of them, “If you had the largest microphone in the world and you could tell everyone on campus one thing, what would you say?” He received a range of responses from the students, and the exhibition ultimately highlighted Bereal’s photographs of 25 students. He shot the project entirely on film, which was made possible with a $1,000 grant from the Fine Arts Diversity Committee’s Student Project Fund program.
He found the interview/photo format compelling and decided to build on it as he conceptualized what would become The Black Yearbook. He worked with fellow UT student Simona Harry to help with casting so he could photograph and interview as many Black students on campus as possible. He later recruited UT student Oluwaseyi Odufuye to help him with the task of conducting 100 interviews between the two of them.
As he set out to photograph these students, he prioritized visually representing the diverse range of experiences of Black students at UT as he captured the images on film.
“I didn't want all the images to look exactly the same, so that meant using a different camera for every shoot that I did and constantly trying to overturn what the look was going to be like,” Bereal said.
He drew inspiration from New York photographer Quentin de Briey’s art book The Other Day and artist Frank Ocean's Boys Don't Cry magazine. Even though he opted for a large-scale format for the book, which comes in at a whopping 360 pages and measures 11.75 x 16 inches, he had to make hard choices about what could fit within those pages from all the stories he’d collected over the past year.
“The pandemic complicated a lot of things, but that time in between allowed me headspace to think on some of the ideas more carefully and intentionally,” Bereal said. “Overall, it gave me a much clearer train of thought when I started to really piece everything together.”
As he began laying out the book’s design, he saw value in bringing in collaborators both to help with the volume of page layouts, but also to bring different looks and perspectives to the book’s design. He wanted the design to embody the idea that Blackness is not a monolithic concept, and he chose to break away from the traditional rules of design. He recruited fellow Design students Huệ Minh Cao, Ben Zerbo, Kalissa White and Anna Sing to help with layout of the book.
“For me, the first part of doing that was establishing no design rules,” Bereal said. “Any designer would be terrified by that, but there weren't really too many rules. I gave them dimensions, and we had mood boards of things that fell in line with the type of design we wanted. But for the most part, it was a field day. That helped emphasize that each student's voice is so unique.”
Although the book is set to mail out from the printers in mid-September, it’s already drawing positive press from the New York Times, The Atlantic, Vice, Texas Monthly, CNN, The Washington Post and other outlets.
The positive attention for the project has helped open doors for Bereal, and he’s currently in a six-month residency in Austin as he tackles some freelance projects and other opportunities that have come his way in recent months.
“Life is moving, even though the world is still in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said. “Right now, I'm really focused on stretching myself as much as possible while I'm in residency for the next six months. After that, I plan to move to New York in January.”