Titus Kaphar is an artist who seeks to dislodge history from its status as the "past" in order to unearth its contemporary relevance. His aim is to reveal something of what has been lost and to investigate the power of rewritten history. Kaphar’s most recent sculpture, created for the Forgotten Soldier exhibit, is on display at the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown.
- When I say shifting the gaze, I'm imploring the viewer
to set what feels natural aside for a moment
and try a different route through the work.
And when you do that through a painting,
even a familiar painting,
you might find something you never expected to find.
Composition, there are techniques and strategies
for guiding the gaze through a particular composition.
I've spent a lot of time studying them,
artists spend a lot of time studying them, they work.
I'm shifting it from the strategy
of the original artist's pathway through the work
and trying to find some other way to see,
not giving in to what will feel most natural.
What I've been doing is actually trying
to separate those black characters
from the other characters in the paintings
who were oppressing them to give the viewer the opportunity
to contemplate these characters on their own terms,
on their own merit, without the pressures
of this oppression that exists
within the compositional structure of the painting itself.
I taught myself how to paint by going to museums
and looking at images like this.
There is a reason he is the highest in the composition here.
There is a reason why the painter
is showing us this gold necklace here.
He's trying to tell us something about the economic status
of these people in his paintings.
Painting is a visual language where everything
in the painting is meaningful, is important, it's coded.
But sometimes, because of the compositional structure,
because of compositional hierarchy,
it's hard to see other things.
There's more written about dogs in art history
than there are about this other character here,
about his dreams, about his hopes,
about what he wanted out of life.
I don't want you to think
that this is about eradication, it's not.
The oil that you saw me just put inside of this paint
is linseed oil it becomes transparent over time,
so eventually what's gonna happen is these faces
will emerge a little bit.
What' I'm trying to do, what I'm trying to show you,
is how to shift your gaze.
When people say that I'm erasing history,
they're pointing to the fact that they don't recognize
that I'm actually uncovering what was already there.
I'm attempting to make you look
at a different part of the painting, not erasing history.
That takes a kind of structural, institutional power
that I actually don't have.
We can look at institutional, structural power,
and we can look and see the ways
in which history has been erased,
it hasn't been erased by some random black dude
in Connecticut making paintings
and putting white paint on it, that ain't how it works.
I didn't grow up going to museums.
My mother worked really, really hard.
My mother had me when we was very young,
she was 15 years old.
She worked three jobs usually,
just to makes sure we were taken care of.
I found art very late in my life.
I was 27 by the time I realized
that this is really what I wanna do.
So I take my kids to the museum every time I have a chance,
whether they like it or not.
We were in New York City and we were going
to the Natural History Museum in New York.
And as we were walking up the stairs,
we came upon the Teddy Roosevelt sculpture
that's out front of the Natural History Museum.
And Teddy Roosevelt is sitting on the horse,
looking really strong,
boldly holding that horse with one arm
and on one side of him is an African American man,
and on the left side of him is a Native American man.
And as we were walking up the stairs,
my oldest son, Savion, he said,
"Dad, how come he gets to ride and they have to walk?"
And it was one of those moments where you, as a parent,
realize this is gonna take way longer than we really have,
but you can't pass up those kinds of teachable moments.
And so we sat on the stairs for a little bit
and we talked about it.
In my house history is a really important thing, it's alive,
and we try to help our kids understand
that understanding the past
is about understanding the present.
That painting, Behind the Myth of Benevolence,
is about the dichotomy of this country itself,
of our country itself.
You have the individual who probably wrote more eloquently
about liberty than anyone to ever walk, Thomas Jefferson,
and you have that same individual who values liberty
more than life itself withholding liberty
from hundreds of people who make his very life possible.
The character in the painting, the woman in that painting,
is at once Sally Mae Hemings, in quotations,
and at once a stand in for all of the other black women
who were on that plantation.
There are over 300 other enslaved people on that plantation,
at least 50% of them are women.
And so it's easy for us to focus on
that one part of the story and forget that there were
other women who were abused in so many different ways.
In that painting, it's a literal pulling back the curtain
to again shift our gaze.
We can't just simply demonize our founding fathers,
but it's also important not to deify them,
let's just find the truth in the middle.
The Forgotten Soldier, I've been working with this concept
for a little while now.
It came as a sort of fascination
of the process of making sculpture.
In this particular work, I decided that I wanted the mold
to be the finished work.
That is, I wanted you to be able to look, in this case,
at George Washington, one of our founding fathers,
in his absence, his complete, his perfect absence.
But in his perfect absence is, as I said,
the pure potential for all of the good things,
but the reality of the bad things as well.
In front of that is this figure, this soldier on one knee,
preparing for battle in profile.
The black figure in the front
is about those forgotten soldiers, the ones that were there,
that participated, that for some reason history forgot.
Let's be honest, it's not for some reason,
it doesn't work with the narrative that slavery makes sense,
slavery is good for the nation,
black people like to be enslaved.
So we write out those kinds of histories.
We just ignore them because it challenge other aspects
of what we believe.
My intention is that we see both of these characters
at the same time, that there is a visual dialogue
between the character who sits in front,
this black soldier, and George Washington.
We have this tendency to kind of write our history
thinking about those people sitting on that horse,
but there is a lot of other characters,
those soldiers on the ground,
that actually give their lives for the battle.
In this particular exhibition,
we're talking about the black soldiers who were by and large
forgotten to history, erased from history.
In putting them together,
I'm trying to say let's not prioritize
either part of the conversation over the other,
let's have both of the conversations at once.