Titus Kaphar challenges canonical artistic representations

Kaphar’s lecture was organized by Katie Priest ’18 as well as her fellow members of WCMA Think Tank and Ephs at the Clark. Photo courtesy of the Clark/Tucker Blair.

On Claiming Williams Day, students, faculty, staff and community members flocked to the Clark Art Institute for Titus Kaphar’s presentation “Making Space for Black History: Amending the Landscape of American Art.” Kaphar, a highly acclaimed mixed media artist, explores race, criminality and social justice by appropriating and reconstructing works by ancient master artists. Reflecting on the past and critiquing the present, his work illuminates narratives and individuals underrepresented in museums and art history more broadly.

Of his approach to reconstructive history, Kaphar writes on his site, “I cut, crumple, shroud, shred, stitch, tar, twist, bind, erase, break, tear and turn the paintings and sculptures I create, configuring them into works that nod to hidden narratives and begin to reveal unspoken truths about the nature of history.”

Ephs at the Clark Co-president Katie Priest ’18 learned about Kaphar through her father. After watching Kaphar’s TED Talk, she immediately proposed bringing him to the Clark. “I watched him paint over canonical works and talk about representation in high art, and I couldn’t help but think about how powerful it would be to see him at the Clark given the works on view in the galleries,” she said.

With the help of her Ephs at the Clark co-president and fellow Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) Think Tank member Perry Weber ’19, Priest persuaded the Clark, WCMA and the Claiming Williams Steering Committee to support Kaphar’s Williamstown visit.

“When Katie brought this idea to the Clark, I said yes immediately,” Director of the Clark Olivier Meslay said. “I had been teaching Titus Kaphar’s work in my graduate course ‘In Vinculus Invictus: Portraits in Prison,’ and I think he is an incredibly powerful and important artist. The questions he poses about the role of prisons are crucial in understanding our society. His ability to create a strong visual image is amazing.”

Kaphar’s presentation did not disappoint. Graciously welcomed to the stage by Meslay, Kaphar immediately joked, “I hate these things. That’s probably a really bad way to start a presentation, but it feels like a monologue. I want this to be a dialogue.”

After breaking the barrier between artist and audience, Kaphar began his winding and dynamic story. He grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he attended high school with neither great academic success nor support. When a girl questioned his vision for the future, Kaphar, eager to impress her, enrolled in junior college that same day. As he selected random courses, Kaphar unknowingly discovered what would become some of his greatest joys in life — art and his wife.

Kaphar recalled his introductory art history course, which spanned centuries of art, architecture, style and change. Among the hundreds of topics and readings in the course, there was a single passage on the representation of black people in the history of art. Kaphar pressed his professor to discuss the reading in class, but the professor responded, “We don’t have the time.”

Invigorated rather than discouraged, Kaphar dedicated himself to studying art history, narrowing his focus on the depiction and narratives of black subjects in art. At the age of 27, Kaphar created his very first painting. After three rejections from Yale’s Master of Fine Arts program, he was finally accepted and moved to New Haven, Conn.

Kaphar’s ability to capture and evoke emotion has been recognized and harnessed across the country. In the wake of the Ferguson, Mo. protests in 2014, Time Magazine commissioned Kaphar to capture the national impact of individuals’ social and political activism. His portrait Yet Another Fight for Remembrance features protestors with hands stretched overhead, thick white paints obscuring their bodies and mouths.

This past fall, Kaphar was also called upon as Princeton confronted its historical ties to the institution of slavery through contemporary art. Resting on the land where six African-American slaves were sold on Princeton’s campus in 1766, Kaphar’s contemporary sculpture Impressions of Liberty questions who and what is remembered in history. The current conversation on the role of historical monuments offers a binary choice: keep it or take it down. Kaphar, however, argues that it is not enough to tear down or deaccession works. Contemporary artists like Kaphar have the power to address today’s controversies while reminding viewers of the people and injustices that should not be forgotten.