In His New Work, Titus Kaphar Examines Racial Injustice In The Prison-Industrial Complex
Titus Kaphar began thinking about his latest series of paintings, Destiny, when he met a woman named Tina Reynolds, who had given birth to her first son in prison. They were brought together by the Studio Museum in Harlem, along with a group of scholars and other artists, to talk about issues of mass incarceration.
During a panel discussion, Reynolds said she’d been shackled during the entire birthing process. The image horrified Kaphar, who, as a father of two boys himself, knows the restraints were unnecessary. “I was at my own two sons’ births,” he says. “She’s not going to get up and run away.”
The only purpose of shackling Reynolds, Kaphar says now, was to dehumanize her. Destiny represents the artist’s effort to do the opposite: humanize the countless women of color who, like Reynolds, have been lost in the prison-industrial complex, whether they committed a crime or not.
Destiny, which is on display at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York until January 28th, began with a simple idea: to look for women bearing that name in online databases of mugshots — mugshots.com and busted.com — and then paint their portraits. He then layered one Destiny on top of another. The effect is jarring. Equally jarring is the political statement the project makes about the endemic racism baked into our criminal justice system.
Kaphar, who grew up in a poor, African-American section of Kalamazoo, Michigan, says he chose the name Destiny because it’s common in the black community, and for what it represents: “Hope, optimism for the future, and a name that defines all of these destinies, all of these women whose lives come together in some way.”
“And then when you see how they come together on busted.com,” Kaphar adds, “and it’s the antithesis of all that hope.”
In this regard, the name Destiny isn’t the point of the project, but rather the name as a racial identifier. Like Kaphar’s previous series, The Jerome Project, which was inspired by researching his own father’s arrest records, leading him to numerous other men of that name serving time in prison, Destiny attempts, as Kaphar says, to “speak to a larger problem in communities of color.”
“The names of people I grew up with — Tyrik, Tanisha, Shamiqua, Tyrone — if you put any of these names [into a mugshot database] you’ll wind up with similar and distressing results,” Kaphar says.
Especially distressing, he adds, is that even if any of these people did commit the crimes for which they’re serving time, they have largely been set up to fail from the outset. “It’s not a question of guilt or innocence,” he says. “A person can be guilty, but so much of that guilt is circumstantial. So much of that guilt could have been avoided if we had addressed the root causes earlier on. The system that we have is not working — for the guilty or the innocent.”
Kaphar says he makes art less to effect change than to wrestle with the “things that rattle around in [his] head,” as a “way to get them out.”
And he knows the result can be unsettling — indeed, that’s the point. “I hope these pictures are difficult to look at,” he says. “I’m not interested in making pretty pictures. I want the images to be as challenging to look at as the issues we’re trudging through.”