Titus Kaphar on Art, Race and Justice
“A painting may inspire, but it’s people who make change.”
The painter Titus Kaphar made his name as a portraitist of criminal justice with his 2014 show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the “Jerome Project.”
Kaphar had been researching the prison records of his estranged father, Jerome, and discovered scores of other imprisoned men who shared his father’s name. Working from mugshots, he painted small oil portraits of the Jeromes, their faces haloed by Byzantine gold leaf and partially submerged in tar — evoking the disproportionate representation of black men among America’s incarcerated.
His most recent work continues to explore the confluence of race, punishment and protest. He provided a selection of new work, and spoke with The Marshall Project’s Bill Keller. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Maybe we should start with the square portraits you did of Dwayne Betts, El Sawyer and Shontina Williams, former prison inmates who have become activists for criminal justice reform. Why did you decide to paint them?
So when I started all of this work, it came from this very personal place of investigating the criminal justice system and using my father’s name as a kind doorway into this bigger, broader issue of the Prison-Industrial Complex. I had been on several panels after doing the “Jerome” exhibition and had the opportunity to read more, talk to people, and it was broadening my understanding of the issue and making me realize how complex and how difficult it’s going to be to actually make changes.
While that’s happening, everything in the country related to police brutality is really beginning to spark people’s interest. People who weren’t originally concerned or interested in these issues are now concerned, it’s directly related to the technology that we all carry. So like everyone else in the country, I began to watch these videos from camera-phones all over the country and watch this kind of harassment and abuse happen. We began to see more and more of these videos, and I continued working on the project, looking at the criminal justice system and mug shots and people who found themselves trapped in the system. Then the Sandra Bland video comes out, [the police dash-cam footage of a Texas state trooper dragging a black woman from her car; she was later found hanged in her jail cell] and I find myself in this loop watching this horrific video over again with some kind of expectation, this kind of hope that something’s going to change. If I just keep watching, it will be different, and of course it’s not.
I saw myself sort of spiraling down into this depression, and I’m not really a person given to depression. I really didn’t know how to manage it. I approached a friend of mine, Dwayne, Reginald Dwayne Betts, and I spoke to him about all the things that were going on. He had been in and out of my studio quite a bit. I felt, after that conversation, that what would be helpful for my soul would be to be able to speak to people like Dwayne, to be able to meditate on the faces of people who have, not just survived the institution, our prison system, but who have come out and really begun to work towards changing the system. That’s where those very simple square portraits came from, just a way to meditate on the hope of it.
When you’re dealing with these kinds of issues, it’s so very easy to get lost in the horror. It’s so very easy to get lost in the losses. The wins, the success stories don’t often come through. So those portraits, that whole series, are folks who are working in the community trying to make things better for everyone, honestly.
Would you say that you are giving them something of a heroic stature?
I’m deeply interested in portraiture as a form, and when you look at mug shots as a form, that kind of portraiture only has a single purpose. It’s to memorialize criminality. It really has no other real aesthetic function. There are no aesthetic questions asked about lighting, about composition, about pose … three-quarter, portrait, profile … in a way that would attempt to uplift or glorify the sitter.
I didn’t set out with the intention to uplift or glorify the sitter so much as I set out to find the individual during the process of painting, to get to know them better through the kind of meditative, painterly process, going over the lines in the faces, the shape of the eyes, looking at them in a way that mug shots wouldn’t allow for, an intimacy of care that mug shots don’t consider. So most of the folks in that series have at one time been represented by that other form, that mug shot, that kind of imagery. So the painting was more about contrasting that form with the traditional form that I’ve studied.
When you study an individual’s face and you attempt to reproduce that with some sort of honesty, you’re bound to get to something of their humanity.
By the way, there is an older form of mug shot photography that was actually done by professionals, that is actually quite beautiful. They’re shockingly beautiful photographs, but that’s not what we do now.
I’m not a painter that believes you put a painting on the wall and it changes the world. I think it’s a conversation starter. I think it can provoke questions. It can move us emotionally, but I believe strongly that, as artists, we need to engage the system in some broader ways if we want to see the changes in the world that we hope for, that we paint about.
I believe in terms of painting or sculpture on their own, they may inspire, but it’s the people, it’s the people that make change. I think of the work as a sort of a marker, a site for civic dialog, a visual framework to wrap our ideas around and possibly stand as a banner that we erect and march behind. But alternately, if we don’t engage the system directly, the objects and the images that we make are ultimately inanimate and inert, and it won’t have the impact that we want to see, that we desperately want to see happen in the world.
Would you talk a little bit about the Destiny series?
I was on a panel at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and this woman on the panel with me told the story of giving birth to her first son, who was about my age, giving birth to her first son in prison with shackles on her feet and on her hands. And I felt emotionally broken by that. I felt ashamed that I had ignored the impact of the criminal justice system on women and simply focused on how it is this devastational force in the lives of black men. After hearing her story, I felt like I needed to go back to the studio and engage these ideas deeper and consider the impact on women of color specifically.
I was thinking and doing research for the project, and it became very clear to me that the woman’s specific name, the woman from the panel, which was Tina, wasn’t the thing to focus on. I needed a name that functioned as a racial identifier, but also a name that lent itself to a kind of tragic poetry.
There are many friends in my community whose names are Destiny. It is a common African-American name for a little girl, but there was this tragic poetry about that name that sort of pushed me deeper. You don’t give a person the name Destiny out of a sense of hopelessness. You give them the name Destiny in a desire that they would, from the moment of their birth, believe that there was something better for them in the future.
Actually to go to these mug shot databases and find Destiny after Destiny after Destiny, Destinies devastated by our harsh, overly punitive, unbalanced, and unjust criminal system was horrific, and the name Destiny itself felt like the perfect sort of moniker to tell the story.
So in the painting that you’re seeing, each painting includes three Destinies, three different distinct Destinies, each one layered on top of the other. Each portrait of these individual Destinies comes from the same databases. And you see in some of these paintings these eyes that become askew. It’s supposed to be visually challenging.
The multiplicity of the figures of the faces layered on top of each other makes it difficult for your eyes to focus on when you see them in person. Your brain tries to render of these individuals as one. And because that can’t happen, because they are not one, they are multiple messages, it results in this kind of headache. Even the process of making them left me with a headache. This is not an easy issue that we’re dealing with. It is not a simple issue that we’re dealing with. It’s not a beautiful issue that we’re dealing with. Many destinies, as I said, have been stolen as a result of this system.
Now I have to go back to the gallery and look again. You’ve got a series of three paintings, a car on a road, which I guess is a Sandra Bland reference.
Why does it fade to black?
That whole project, that series of paintings sort of functioned as my shovel to dig me out of the depression that I was falling into, as I said before. I needed to do something, because watching that video was not helping. As I said before, I started looking for something to change through the watching, that somehow I was going to watch this video again, and I was going to see something different, and I just felt myself trapped in it. The one thing that I did notice beyond the tragedy of the whole film, there was one moment that felt pivotal. That was the moment in which the officer takes Sandra out of the frame.
We have this technology that is put in cars, police cars, in order to record these interactions so that we can all see what’s going on. He consciously makes a decision to walk her outside of the frame, thereby removing us as a witness, and yet it’s her voice that we hear. She narrates her own demise. So that body of paintings starts using asphalt to represent the road she was stopped on. It takes that tar, that asphalt, and uses it as a painting medium, and it starts at that moment when that officer pulled her outside of the frame, and it shows the image clearly, but with her removed. And then the second frame, the scene becomes darker, and then the final frame is just the complete absence of light.
My colleague Carroll Bogert said that when she saw that series it reminded her of those lonely roads in the South where civil rights activists were murdered back in the civil rights struggle.
The painting that we haven’t talked about is the one with the water hoses. One from Alabama in ’63, and one from North Dakota last year. I infer from that that you’re drawing a connection between the civil rights activism of the 60’s and the recent activism of Native Americans protesting the pipeline.
Yeah, I mean, yes, I am, but it’s … This is basically what happened, how that piece emerged. As you know from my work, I’m a person who’s deeply interested in history and specifically the resistance movements that have arisen throughout history. And I’m obviously interested in the protest images that result from the different movements. Everyone in America has seen these images of the civil rights movement where officers are siccing dogs on protesters. And everyone has seen these protesters being blasted with water hoses again and again. And these were the images that framed that movement.
And the images are so ubiquitous to me. They’re everywhere. I see them all the time, and so the thing that I found shocking as I was watching the protest that’s happening over the pipeline … and I promise you there will be more protesting now that President Trump has approved the pipeline … I was watching these men turn hoses again on protesters and thought, “We’ve been through this before.”
The only thing that makes sense to me is the people who did this don’t actually know the history or they don’t care. Both are tragic.
I am curious to know whether you sense in your world, meaning the art world, an increased interest in criminal justice issues, aside from your own work?
I do. Artists don’t make work in isolation, generally. They are influenced by the world around them, and I’ve seen this conversation come up visually more than I ever have before. It’s always been a very personal issue for me, that is, jails and prisons, because in my youth, I visited my father there, and my cousins and brothers’ friends have been in and out of that system. So it’s very much been a part of my thinking for a very long time. So I do see it happening. I do see a focus on it.
I’m heartsick and sorry about it at the same time because in the justice world it a deeper investigation of the issues is standard. You dig deep to find out answers, and you look more into the issues, and you try to come to some conclusions. Then you try to work towards change.
The art world is not like that, and that’s where my fear comes from. The art world can be extremely fickle. The art world is often about just what’s novel. I don’t want this to just become one of those issues that’s in fashion right now, and therefore we’re making art about it. That would be disheartening.