With more urgency than a headline, Titus Kaphar’s artworks capture the spirit of social justice and change in America today (exemplified in his TIME cover portrait of the Ferguson protests). Named a 2018 MacArthur Fellow for “highlighting the lack of representation of people of color in the canon of Western art with works that deconstruct the literal and visual structure of the artwork,” Kaphar’s art and talks expose racism, inequality, and a criminal justice system that is anything but just.
“Art is a language. There is always a narrative coded in painting and sculpture. When you look at something, ask yourself, who is represented and who is invisible?”— Titus Kaphar, The Atlantic
Titus Kaphar works with history—history writ large, as well as his own story, familial and personal—to offer a stirring portrait of the here and now. As a result, his body of work is diverse, in both form and substance.
In all his work, Kaphar speaks to the most vital discussions happening around race, diversity, and reconciliation in the U.S. As an engrossing keynote speaker—as well as a MacArthur Fellow and TED speaker (who earned a standing ovation for his presentation)—Kaphar exposes how all depictions, no matter how personal or grandiose, are always fictional, imperfect, and capable of being remade. In recognition of his powerful vision, TIME magazine commissioned him to create an artwork in response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri—freezing in time an unforgettable moment of potential, protest, and civil rights upheaval. In The Jerome Project, he explores the overwhelming volume of men trapped in our criminal justice system bearing his own father’s name. The mug shots of these ‘Jeromes,’ all African-American, are re-imagined as gilded, devotional subjects submerged in tar—signaling how much time they’ve lost in prison as well as a historical form of torture. For Drawing the Blinds, Kaphar cuts, bends, sculpts, and re-mixes the work of Classical and Renaissance painters, creating formal games between fiction and quotation, interrogating the history of aesthetics while revealing marginalized, forgotten figures.
“There’s so much power that happens when we shift our focus or our gaze—just slightly, momentarily—and confront the unspoken truth ... I’m trying to create a literal space for anyone ... to begin thinking about iconic leaders in history, how glorified images of the past affect the world we live in today.”— Titus Kaphar, The Atlantic
Most recently, Kaphar collaborated with poet, memoirist, and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts on The Redaction at MoMA PS1. Drawing inspiration and source material from lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Corps (CRC) on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees, The Redaction features poetry by Betts in combination with Kaphar’s etched portraits of incarcerated individuals. Together, Betts’s poems and Kaphar’s printed portraits blend the voices of poet and artist with those of the plaintiffs and prosecutors, reclaiming these lost narratives and drawing attention to some of the many individuals whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration.
“Shining a fierce, restorative light on those left in the shadow of history,” (The New York Times), Kaphar’s new arts incubator, NXTHVN is a $12 million nonprofit center and fellowship program that nurtures rising talents. Recently, Kaphar also collaborated with For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative, a cross-country art project promoting passion and participation in the democratic process. With them, Kaphar created a powerful tribute to Martin Luther King in the form of a Kentucky billboard titled Behind the Myth of Benevolence. He also completed a sculptural commission for Princeton University Art Museum (to coincide with the opening of the Princeton and Slavery project). The sculpture has been strategically erected on the lawn of the MacLean House, where former university presidents lived and owned slaves. With etched glass and layered photographs of slave-owners and black actors representing his slaves, Kaphar aims to create a visual experience similar to a manual-focus camera, in which perspectives slide in and out of view.
Kaphar’s previous exhibitions include Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Shifting Skies, Selections from Asphalt and Chalk, 99 Jeromes, Drawing the Blinds, The Vesper Project, The Jerome Project, Beyond a Veil of Beauty, Classical Disruption, Reconstruction, and History in the Making. He is the distinguished recipient of the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship as well as the 2015 Creative Capital Award and 2016 Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship. His work has been included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as in solo and group exhibitions at Savannah College of Art and Design, the Studio Museum in Harlem (where he was Artist in Residence), the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the Seattle Art Museum. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Kaphar lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut and New York. He received an MFA from the Yale School of Art and a BFA from San Jose State University.
Personalizing Mass Incarceration Exploring American Justice and Injustice
Titus Kaphar left his father’s house when he was just fifteen. Twenty years later, after zero contact, his father reappeared, wanting to reconnect. Kaphar spent the next three days recording their conversations: asking questions, using the camera screen as a means of distance and objectivity. Later, when searching into his father’s past, he not only found his criminal record, but the records of 99 other men—all black, and all bearing the exact same name. Born out of this frightening discovery was The Jerome Project: paintings, video art, sculptures, and even a growing initiative to help young people with family locked inside the criminal justice system.
But for Kaphar, this is not an isolated body of work; rather, it’s one he’s been struggling with his entire life. In this deeply personal keynote, Kaphar confronts the full complexity of the American judicial system—its inequalities, its raw enormity—through his own lived experiences. In so doing, Kaphar puts a human face to an all-too-American story (much like his own father’s particular story, and life, dovetails with the social history and myths of black criminality). In essence, and like any great artist, Kaphar brings immediacy to abstraction—making distant notions about de-industrialization, generational poverty, and mass incarceration as familiar, and moving, as a portrait of someone we love.
Making Space for Black History Amending the Landscape of American Art
If art is a language that speaks, what is it saying? In statue form, Roosevelt rides a horse and boldly stares into the future; meanwhile, nameless African American and Indigenous people walk on foot beside him. Statues of confederate soldiers loom over our civic institutions—our libraries and schools and offices—without context or apology. Who are the anonymous slaves, servants, and laborers appearing as footnotes in portraits of our Founding Fathers? What values are being expressed by the constitutional monuments dotting the American landscape? And why do we skip over chapters—entire peoples, entire histories—in our national narratives? In this powerful talk, Titus Kaphar imagines a renewed, more nuanced engagement with American history: envisioning new spaces for marginalized or forgotten bodies to enter, and disrupt, the evolving fabric of our culture. For this creator, the artist’s role is clear: to draw back the curtain on ignorance and deception, and amplify the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves. In a simple phrase, it’s to celebrate the truth. Join Kaphar—one of the country’s most exciting young painters—on a revealing, intellectually nourishing tour of the issues most in need of amendment.