For Artist Titus Kaphar the Artwork Is Personal, Not Political - Even the Overtly Political Ones

For Artist Titus Kaphar the Artwork Is Personal, Not Political - Even the Overtly Political Ones

Photo by Mark Gjukich

“Painting is dead.”

That’s what professors told artist Titus Kaphar during his time studying art at Yale and finding himself most drawn to painting as a medium.

“I remember one day in a critique,” Kaphar recounted on stage recently during a visit to Ann Arbor for the Penny Stamps Lecture Series, “I remember saying to one of the professors, if painting is dead, then fine, I’m not gonna argue about that with you. But I want to be the person who does the autopsy. Because I wanna figure out how something that’s dead makes me feel so alive when I’m sitting in front of the canvas.”

Kaphar’s unique approach to his paintings is immediately recognizable–he often physically manipulates each piece by slashing or crumpling the canvas, hanging another on top as a second layer to reveal hidden details, or dipping almost the entire thing in tar. He described this process as “torturing” the paintings. 

Kaphar’s work Flay (James Madison) has been on display at UMMA since mid-2020. The portrait of the fourth U.S. president has been slashed to ribbons, with the strips of canvas twisted and pinned out to the sides. The painting acts as a centerpiece for Unsettling Histories, an ongoing exhibition in which UMMA curators have rewritten object labels to more honestly reflect the colonial contexts in which each work was created, a gallery intervention inspired by Kaphar who also served as a curatorial consultant on the project.

UMMA and the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series Present artist Titus Kaphar: Unsettling Histories

See Titus Kaphar’s full talk (including a screening of his short film I Hold Your Love)

Watch on YouTube

But even though many of his works have overtly political themes, Kaphar doesn’t want to be known as a political artist. He related a story of how a retired American history teacher friend of his spoke once of “benevolent” slave owners, and when he pressed her to explain what she meant, she couldn’t. That conversation led him to paint Behind the Myth of Benevolence, a portrait of Sally Hemings–a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson–peeking out from behind his portrait hanging like a curtain. “I’m not doing this stuff because I’m trying to make political statements,” he said. “I’m doing this stuff because I’m trying to figure it out! I don’t understand how it happens.” 

Kaphar also related a story about an encounter with police officers in New York City several years ago. He was showing his brother some of his paintings on display in Chelsea, and police stopped to question them because they were looking for “two Black men walking in and out of galleries.” The situation left him rattled. “This is not politics for me! This is my life!” he said. “None of this stuff is about me trying to, like, get into what’s happening in the political universe. This is just stuff we deal with! This is real life! My citizenship is different to some people.”

Later, while processing the police incident, he painted a work (Yet Another Fight for Remembrance) of two Black men with their hands up, splattered with white paint. “When people talk about this painting, they put it in the context of all the Black Lives Matter stuff that was going on,” he explained. “And that’s cool, and I make space for that, for sure. But this painting is about me and my brother.”

Yet Another Fight for Remembrance was later featured in TIME Magazine–although, Kaphar is quick to point out, not on the cover (and, he has also never been named TIME Person of the Year, although that misinformation floats around the Internet from time to time). But who knows what the future will hold–don’t count him out just yet.


Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism

View Exhibition

Titus Kaphar, Flay (James Madison), 2019, oil on canvas with nails, Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen, 2019/2.184