Kaphar’s journey into uncovering the historical underrepresentation and portrayal of black subjects in art began in an introductory art history course in college. While trying to cover “everything from cave paintings to Jackson Pollock in one semester,” his professor decided to skip the brief and poorly curated chapter on black artists and the representation of black individuals in art, citing lack of time.
Discouraged but energized, Kaphar realized, “These chapters are not going to be written for us. We have to write these chapters ourselves.” Thus began his dedication to studying art, with a focus on depictions and narrative of black subjects (who are frequently seen enslaved, in servitude, or impoverished, he noted) and to questioning what history left out.
Kaphar urges anyone studying the traditional canon of art to consider someone who is not typically at the forefront and to shift his or her gaze to the person of color. In his popular April 2017 TED Talk, he takes a brush of white paint to his replica of 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape, to bring the unseen narrative into focus.
Though his own work often borrows from the traditional canon, particularly of Classical or Renaissance portraiture, he reshapes or transforms it in some way. “I cut, crumple, shroud, shred, stitch, tar, twist, bind, erase, break, tear and turn the paintings and sculptures I create, configuring them into works that nod to hidden narratives and begin to reveal unspoken truths about the nature of history,” he says of his approach.
One example is The Myth of Benevolence, in which a portrait of Thomas Jefferson is pulled back, curtain-like, to reveal a black woman representative of Jefferson’s reported affairs with women he owned as slaves.
Another way to address centuries of racism in art, Kaphar noted, is to amend our public sculptures and national monuments. “Right now, the country is thinking about our national monuments in a binary way,” he said. “Keep the sculptures up or tear them down.”
However, there is a third option—adding to the conversation. Not erasing, but amending public art by placing the untold story side-by-side with the existing story, on a level playing field. “We need to remember where we were, but also acknowledge where we are going.”
The resistance to taking down or amending national monuments that reveal these painful histories is likely not about the quality of the art itself. “Most of these are not beautiful statues. We’re not arguing whether or not the Bernini stays or goes,” Kaphar said. The opposition, rather, is from individuals who think it is an attempt to erase history, which is not Kaphar’s intention at all. He believes placing works by contemporary artists next to these older monuments will create a dialogue in a civic space by which everyone can learn and grow.
“I’m not saying we need to demonize our founding fathers, but don’t deify them, either,” Kaphar said. “We want people to be wholly good or wholly bad, but when they’re human and complex and they make mistakes, we don’t know what to do with them. When we place people on that kind of pedestal, we believe we can’t live up to their legacies.”