At the time of heightened tension in the light of the current coronavirus pandemic, racial protests, and the upcoming elections, American society has a lot to deal with. The pandemic was just the last straw in the situation of enormous class discrepancy based on the matter of race.
Numerous media have spoken openly about the policy brutality, essentially a consequence of centuries-old racism that stands at the core of the American institutions despite the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement and the activity of crucial figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
The relevance of the new wave of Black representation critical of the mentioned issues was among many promoted by the TIME magazine back in 2014 when an illustration by the critically acclaimed artist Titus Kaphar was featured on their cover. This particular image depicting a group of protestors gathered for the demonstrations following the killing of Michael Brown highlighted the artist’s engagement and the way he uses his art to indicate the lack of representation and the matrix that keeps on repeating throughout history.
Another time Kaphar’s art was featured on the Time magazine cover happened amid the nationwide protests after George Floyd was brutally killed by police in Minneapolis in May this year. Under the title Analogous Colors, the artist produced a stunning image of a black mother holding a silhouette of a child cut into the canvas, as a reaction to Floyd summoning his mother while being pressed against the ground by a police officer for almost nine minutes.
The red band that frames the TIME cover was for the first time inscribed with text - the names of thirty-five black men and women who died after being exposed to police brutality. Analogous Colors was followed by a poem titled I Cannot Sell You This Painting written by Kaphar. Before this now iconic cover happened, the artist already gained reception for his unique multidisciplinary practice that stands side by side with the work of other relevant Black figures of his generation such as Kehinde Wiley, Hank Willis Thomas, or Theaster Gates.
In an attempt to take a closer look at Kaphar’s fruitful activity, we are focusing on two of his solo exhibitions organized by Gagosian in New York and Maruani Mercier in Brussels.
By using different techniques to physically penetrate the canvas, Titus Kaphar dismantles the representational modes, mediums, and styles to underline invisible layers of history. Centered on the pierced gaps, his hybrid paintings embody the performative nature of the artist’s gestures and ultimately helps us understand contemporaneity.
Perhaps the best example to support this claim is the work Behind the Myth of Benevolence (2014), that features a replica of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson executed on a folded curtain covering an actual painting featuring an intimate portrait of Sally Hemings, a beautiful young Black woman who was the slave of a former American president with whom he had six children.
The current exhibition at Gagosian titled From a Tropical Space is a continuation of the historical dissection in favor of racial issues. A total of eleven elaborate paintings, including the mentioned Analogous Colors, is focused on the notion of Black motherhood. The collective trauma regarding the disappearance of children is physically expressed with the lack of images from the canvases themselves.
Set back in the suburban environments, these compositions underline both the significance of the motherly figures and the uncertainty Black mothers have to face while taking care of their children in a society saturated with racial intolerance.
Another exhibition by Titus Kaphar called The Evidence of Things Unseen goes outside the American context and it takes into consideration the legacy of Renaissance art and the Catholic iconography.
Namely, the artist reacted to the space of the Gesù Church in Brussels where the works are installed by intervening into the canon and readapting it to the contemporary moment. The figure of Jesus features a duck-taped portrait of a Black man who desperately seeks for help rather than pointing to the heave, while the iconic scene of Susan and the Elders and Eve becomes the site of interference as bodies drift into the landscape.
The artist’s innovative formal intervention in this case becomes a rather elaborate and conceptually rounded strategy to disrupt the traditional white-centered narratives and introduce scenes populated by other races that are historically speaking more adequate since the biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa.
The impression is that Titus Kaphar employs tremendous efforts not only to technically perfect his technique but rather to problematize the very notion of the media as a site of social and political contestation. By constructing odd and sometimes haunting narratives, the artist tends to rewrite history which no longer has a right to generate suppression, inequities, and violence.
The Evidence of Things Unseen organized by Maruani Mercer will be on display at Gesù Church in Brussels until 28 November 2020, while From a Tropical Space will be on display at Gagosian in New York until 19 December 2020.
Featured images: Titus Kaphar - The Evidence of Things Unseen, installation view, 2020. Courtesy Maruani Mercier; Titus Kaphar - From a Tropical Space , Installation view © Titus Kaphar. Photo: Rob McKeever.
New York City, United States of America