Artist Titus Kaphar Explores ‘UnSeen’ Narratives In Provocative Historic Portraiture

Hanging half loose from its stretcher, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson reveals an image of a black woman behind it. It’s a provocative juxtaposition that raises a question about the relationship between the two subjects. Her hair is covered while her partially shown shoulder and leg are bare. She is brown-skinned with an indeterminable gaze. She evokes both assertion and alarm.

Titled “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” (2014), the painting by Titus Kaphar was inspired by a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson made in 1800.

“This painting is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and yet it is not,” Kaphar said. “The reason I say, ‘And yet it is not,’ is because we know from the actual history that Sally Hemings was very fair. Very, very fair. The woman who sits here is not just simply a representation of Sally Hemings, she’s more of a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.”

More: Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar is an artist whose paintings, sculptures, and installations examine the history of representation by transforming its styles and mediums with formal innovations to emphasize the physicality and dimensionality of the canvas and materials themselves.

His practice seeks to dislodge history from its status as the “past” in order to unearth its contemporary relevance. He cuts, crumples, shrouds, shreds, stitches, tars, twists, binds, erases, breaks, tears, and turns the paintings and sculptures he creates, reconfiguring them into works that reveal unspoken truths about the nature of history.

Open areas become active absences; walls enter into the portraits; stretcher bars are exposed; and structures that are typically invisible underneath, behind, or inside the canvas are laid bare to reveal the interiors of the work. In so doing, Kaphar’s aim is to reveal something of what has been lost and to investigate the power of a rewritten history.

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