Titus Kaphar’s Paintings of Historical Injustice

“My aim is to investigate the power of a rewritten history.” So says American artist Titus Kaphar, who divides his time between New York and Connecticut. Kaphar is that rare artist at the moment, a man with a keen interest in art history, an interest that goes way further back than the start of the 20th century when Picasso changed art forever. What he is saying is instructive: history is always written by the victor. The losers, the minorities? Their stories are written out.

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Kaphar is also interested in history itself, particularly historical injustice. He is also interested in social injustice too, as well as criminal injustice. His passions go right on to American history, individual history, world history, as well as how history itself is recorded, written down, interpreted, changed, exploited, reinvented and, ultimately, understood and misunderstood. This interest in history, coupled with a remarkable virtuoso talent, allows Kaphar to create a breadth of work that is intriguing for its subject matter, its technique, as well as its fundamental provocation.

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For example, Kaphar likes to paint high-quality figurative and portrait pieces that come with a narrative. The figures have something to say to us, with their poses, their expressions, their relation to one another, their postures and so on. We call them simple gestures of quiet duration, and Kaphar has Rembrandt’s ability to convey to us so much meaning through his figures’ simple gestures.

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Yet he goes onto destroy his works of art by coating his figures in huge, spontaneous swathes of white paint, blotting out their features, hiding their truths. Sometimes he cuts figures out altogether, erasing them from history, telling us these guys don’t really matter. It is a violence that is almost protest-like in its nature. A violence to his own work that is saying, ‘something is not right here. Let’s look at things more closely and see what they really reveal.’ A violence that is telling people to wake up. Things are not as they seem.

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At the end of the 2014, Kaphar became well known across America for creating a Ferguson protest painting. It was a 4-ft by 5-ft oil piece that he called, “Yet Another Fight for Remembrance.” Although its impact on the world in general is much less than the impact Picasso’s Guernica received when it was painted in 1937 in protest at the bombing of Guernica, it exposes the art world’s need to be more politically and socially active. It is a painting that contains the usual Kaphar cues: black men, well painted, half-erased by huge swathes of white paint. Black men erased from having a say.

Kaphar himself feels that the painting failed to communicate, admitting that it felt more like personal catharsis. But Kaphar is at least trying. Art could do so much more to raise awareness of social and historical injustices, but you get the feeling that artists like Kaphar are plodding a lone furrow at the moment.

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(photo source)