Artist Titus Kaphar on His New Solo Show and Unarmed Black Men in America
"I feel very strongly that most of the history that we have been taught is at best incomplete, and at worse fiction."
In the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury's acquittal of officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown, the artist Titus Kaphar drew on black asphalt paper the images of a group of unarmed black men who had all suffered premature deaths by white men. Using white chalk, Kaphar sketched Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, and Michael Brown, overlaying their faces on top of each other to confuse the viewer. The disorienting result aims to signify the growing list of young, black men whose lives have been unfairly taken by authorities in America, and how communities across the country are still mourning these victims.
Opening tonight, January 15, at Jack Shainman Gallery's two locations in Chelsea, Manhattan, Kaphar will present two separate bodies of work that focus on the duality of black experience in America from both a modern and historical perspective. The first show, Chalk on Asphalt, includes the overlain victims, as well as an extension of the artist's earlier work, The Jerome Project, which consisted of confessional-styled paintings that featured black males all named after St. Jerome. Kaphar's men, who are covered in tar and gold leaves, have served time for committing un-saintly offenses.
In Drawing the Blinds, the second show, the works represent the artist's ability to re-imagine blackness by revising the dominant histories we learned in grade school but now take for granted. In one untitled work, a black woman sits on her knees in a blue dress, swiping the floor as a cutout of a baby sits on her back. The post-racialist would want us to place a black child on the woman's back, but upon consideration, the baby must in fact be white, given the work's pre-revolutionary framing. With this realization, we are confronted with the shows' multilayered ideas, as well as the racial tensions and misunderstandings that still shape our country far more than we would like to believe. Kaphar's work brings forgotten figures to the center of the canvas and demonstrates how their stories continue to inform the country's narrative, and matter now more than ever.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Kaphar to speak with him about his timely solo show and expand upon the art's powerful conceptual goals.
VICE: You came to make the work in The Jerome Project because you were searching for your father's criminal record. How did that search lead to you creating that body of work?
Titus Kaphar: My father and I had been out of contact for a long time. So I went online and I was randomly searching for other things, and then it came into my head: "I wonder what this dude is up to?" I looked up his name, wedon't share a surname,and found 99 men with the same one. I was shocked about how many of them had similar criminal records, how many of them were black, and that got me thinking about what was going on with the system.
Focusing on the real-life Jeromes that make up the project, how did their lives influence the paintings beyond the internet search?
Once I found the mug shots, I felt like it was necessary for me to get in contact with these folks. I didn't necessarily want to get in contact with my father, but that happened serendipitously. So, he was the first one I reconnected with [in person]. I filmed the conversation with my father and I saw a different person in him than I had ever seen before.
Do you attribute that to prison?
Definitely not. It was the result of things that had happened in his life after prison. After going through the footage, I realized that I learned a lot about the criminal justice system, poverty in America, and these structural problems—like the deindustrialization of cities in the Midwest (which affected the community I grew up in)—and how those issues evolved into criminal justice issues. So after talking to my father, I wrote letters to several different Jeromes. Some were in prison, and some were not; some replied, and some did not.
You use tar and gold leaf in the paintings. What do these materials symbolize?
When I first started the project, I was thinking about the name Jerome itself. I spoke with my father about how he ended up with the name and he told me that because it related to the bible. And so as I was looking into St. Jerome and I started looking into irony of these men living in this un-saintly situation, but being named after a saint. So I decided to make small devotional paintings for men who would never receive that kind of attention. Beauty is often a bad word in contemporary art right now, but I definitely wanted the paintings to be beautiful. I wanted people to look at these black men on the wall and say they are beautiful. Then to realize these are men who are incarcerated—that moment of confusion where you are trying to manage the reality of beauty and incarceration is part of the project's goal.
The tar happened because I was trying to figure out a way to deal with how being incarcerated impacted these men's lives. So I decided to start to submerge the paintings in tar in proportion to the amount of time they had served in prison. But the more research I did I realized that the amount of time that one spends in prison is only the beginning of their relationship to the system. And so the amount of tar I could apply just wasn't enough. Then, I decided to lean on the tar itself as a symbolic gesture of the impact of the criminal justice system. So works are fully covered and some are slightly covered. The tar also functions as a means to protect the identity of some of these individuals.
What would you want people at risk to get out of The Jerome Project?
I think this is a question of expanding the project. I am working with high school students at this community organization called Art Space in New Heaven who is building an exhibition about the criminal justice system. I did a test run of the program at De Anza College in San Jose with 30 students—I had dancers, photographers, painters, sculptors, art historians, and historians all working together in the museum space there.
What we ended up doing was having this really beautiful experience where the folks who didn't consider themselves artists became the research mind of the project. They would bring their information to the group and say, "Did you know they are building prisons based on third- and fourth-grade test scores?" and that would inspire the artists' work. For the dancers in the group, we built a simulated cell and they choreographed a piece in that space, navigating the outline of the bed and desk while thinking about the idea of being confined. I am also in talks to set up a program at Rikers Island to go in and work with some of the guys there. So there is a way to address this issue through the arts.
Switching over to the revisionist paintings, what strikes me about the revisionist work is that there are these histories overlapping on one another—a combination of word-of-mouth family tales, and these social studies text books that tell you that black people ain't shit and white people rule the world. In your paintings, the duality embedded in those histories is always at play. Did you start painting with this intention?
Duality is a perfect word for it because in most of the work there's this simultaneous idea of absence and presence. Something is gone and something is present. And so I think about the history itself much in the same way. It may not be written in all of the textbooks, but it is still there. I also feel very strongly that most of the history that we have been taught is at best incomplete, and at worse fiction. The more I read history, I realize that all depictions are, to some degree, fiction. We lose something in the interpretation. And as I realized that painters throughout history have embraced this idea of fiction, I have felt complete freedom to address these paintings in a way that made sense for me.
Prior to photography we have these paintings that function as placeholders in our minds for specific historical events. The signing of the Declaration of the Independence is a really great example because the Trumbull painting generally pops in your head when you think of that event. Well that is a complete fiction. That's not how it happened. Those individuals were never in the same room together signing any document like that. But yet that is the placeholder in our mind. So for me these paintings are a way of altering the placeholders and allowed me to maybe put in some facts that were maybe left out.
So if you view this painting hanging on the wall through a dominant narrative, the cutout would certainly represented a white baby on the black woman's back. And what makes that even more powerful for me is that the black woman is dressed in a nice blue dress, which represents a form of empowerment for the time in which the painting is staged. Or am I reading that wrong?
I think there's two things, one it is significant that you realized that. You see into the history and understand that the individual on the back most likely was white. I didn't tell you that. That's your understanding that you bring to the painting. But a lot of people are going to look at that painting and not come to that conclusion.
In your paintings Another Night for Remembrance: Study in Time and 1968/2014 you use this white paint over protest scenes. What was your thought process behind that particular technique?
It was very specific with the Time project. I was really nervous about that. Not nervous because I didn't think I could do it. I was nervous because I felt like, to a certain degree, I was participating in the very thing that might lead to the erasure of this issue. Once we see something on television, or in print, we are given a kind of permission to forget. And so I wanted to make something that reflects this erasure that happens.
We are talking about Ferguson right now and Eric Garner right now. Are we going to still be talking about it five years from now? Because these issues are likely going to be still happening—I hope not, but historically speaking it's probably still going to be happening. So for me, the white washing was about a kind of erasure.
Will the piece be in the show?
The piece will be in the show but the piece is not for sale.
What strikes me about you is that you draw from a very personal side to create your work. Why do you make work that is much more personal that a lot of artists would claim to do?
I tried to avoid it for a really long time to be honest with you. I stopped for a while because I got tired of having these deeply personal conversations with people I didn't know.
Yes, but I got to a point where I realized that these conversations, as I create work, have the affect of informing people who may not know. And for the folks that do know, the work says I get you, I understand where you are coming from, and I am coming from the same place. It's not always easy or comfortable and I don't always like it and sometimes I pull away from it a little bit because sometimes it is painful.
'Yet Another Fight for Remembrance,' 2014
Titus Kaphar's solo exhibitions Drawing the Blinds and Asphalt and Chalk will open Thursday, January 15, and be on display through February 21 at Jack Shainman Gallery at 513 West 20th Street and 524 West 24th Street.
A portion of Titus Kaphar's The Jerome Project is currently on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th Street) through March 8.