In the United States, Afro-descendant artists are arrested outside the gallery where they have just opened an exhibition of their work. They are as suspect in galleries as they are in art history books. This is one of the three life events that the painter and sculptor usually tells Titus kaphar to explain why he does what he does with art. That day he and his brother were arrested by a secret police patrol for stealing works. Another eye-opening event in art history occurred during a visit to the Natural History Museum with his 9-year-old son. The little boy made him see that art is an accomplice of inequality with a simple and spontaneous question. In front of the equestrian sculpture of Teddy rooseveltWith a Native American on one side and an African American on the other, the boy said, “Why is he riding a horse and they walking?”
This 44-year-old artist, born in Michigan and raised between New Haven and California, far from his mother and the violence of his father, with a foster family thanks to which he was able to study Art History at university. The course reached the chapter dedicated to black artists –and here comes the third decisive episode for their creative development–, but the class jumped and went to the next to the indignation of Titus, who revolted against the teacher who alleged lack of time and interest. The future painter could not make the master stop at the subject he longed to know, but then he learned something much more useful for the life he was about to release: exclusion is the formula with which the artistic canon is legitimized. Everything that is not like who writes the canon is left out. The Afro-descendant population and women are the most affected.
That day in the life of our protagonist is important to understand the essence of his work on the forgotten and the forgotten, on the silenced and the silenced. Kaphar’s life and his work are indissoluble. In the rest of creators, too. But while some have a resume, others have a biography. Titus Kaphar’s is decisive because he was born without privileges. He has nothing to lose, and that makes him a danger to the consensus, with which the power has wanted to control the artists. Art is the best social glue, but it can be more than that. Kaphar, who in June signed the cover of the magazine Time In honor of George Floyd, he represents the radical wing: erase the propaganda, correct the speech and discover the truth that art, artists and their payers have hidden. In Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014) displaces the canvas of a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, which hides one of Sally Hemings, slave and mother of six children of the third president of the United States. The gestures Kaphar uses to free history from art – and truth, from beauty – are sharp and obvious. Just as artists of the past used their technical skills to heal the memory of those portrayed, each painting, sculpture or installation by Kaphar is manifest against hagiography: it rewinds until it stains those who were left untouched by the propaganda to which the art was sold.
He says that truth is also a manifestation of beauty and that he uses it to “open hearts” and start “difficult conversations.” Kaphar looks closely at the plastic methods of Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Sam gilliam (1933), to rectify the falsehoods of the manual of art history. He does not erase or destroy them: he prefers to confront them and discover them. He is not in favor of tearing down the sculptures of Edward Colston or Leopold II, but rather of answering them. Although they are “obnoxious” and most of those national monuments no longer reflect contemporary values, he advocates creative sovereignty. A contemporary artist is capable of defeating the exhausted referents of the past.
In Columbus Day Painting (2014) uses cloth to hide the characters that accompanied Columbus and that John Vanderlyn painted in 1836, commissioned by Congress, in a scene that still hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol since 1847. Kaphar turns the intervened into a kind of mummies , while the natives of the background have become the protagonists of the moment of the landing in the West Indies. In Shadows of liberty (2016) portrayed George Washington on horseback and nailed canvas strips on which he printed the names of the slaves owned by the first US president. In Ascension (2016) cut out the silhouette of Michael Jordan in flight to reveal the background The descent (1435), by Roger Van Der Weyden, inviting the parallelism between Jesus and Jordan.
Art is self-serving fiction charged with political interests, which Kaphar neutralizes without fear of discrediting him. He breaks the shirt of the artistic myth that forces him to respect the ideas of centuries ago, he challenges the white narrative without stopping even before the founding fathers of his country. And now, in his new exhibition in a church in Brussels, the artist denounces the absence in the history of the Catholic religion of the black population. The Evidence of Things Unseen It is a vindication of black Christology and the blackness of Christ as a character concerned with all people, without discrimination. He appropriates the Western pictorial tradition and subverts it to rebel against it.
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between the world and me (Seix Barral) that “racism –the need to assign people immutable traits and then humiliate, reduce and destroy them– is the inevitable consequence of this unalterable condition”. Titus Kaphar twists the canvases, cuts them, bends them and tortures them until he makes them sing, until the truth emerges and discovers what the images hide and the art hides, that is, the origins of racist culture and its accomplices.
The Evidence of Things Unseen. Titus Kaphar. Église du Gesù. Brussels. From October 16 to November 28.