Titus Kaphar is a contemporary American painter whose work critically interacts with the racial history of fine art, and particularly with the portrayal and representation of minorities in visual mediums. Through his works, we come to understand an unexplored power of art: that of reappropriating and transforming harmful images. Kaphar’s art engages with historically oppressive representations of minorities, and ultimately overcomes the denigrating messages of racial inferiority through a powerful process of reclamation.
Kaphar is well known for his “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (2015) and “Absconded from the Household of the President of the United States” (2016), two visually powerful works which function as critical interpretations of presidential portraits by Gilbert Stuart (from 1821 and 1796, respectively). Kaphar’s works can be read as an exposé against the idealized infallibility of the American founding fathers, by visually linking both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to their slave-owning practices.
In “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (pictured left), Kaphar takes a portrait of Jefferson (stylistically reminiscent of the portrait from Stuart), and draws it back as a curtain to reveal a portrait of a black woman. This positioning reveals the dark truth behind the façade: the image of a powerful political figure who wrote the Declaration of Independence, pulled aside to reveal the reality of a man who owned hundreds of African-American slaves. We find a similar message in Kaphar’s “Absconded from the Household of the President of the United States,”(right) where a portrait of Washington is obscured by a shredded document: a newspaper advertisement from 1796 for the capture of Washington’s fugitive slave, Oney Judge.
In addition to shifting perspectives on historical figures, Kaphar’s work also challenges traditional interpretations of racially loaded historical events. “Columbus Day Painting” (below) (2014), from his Wrapped series, is one such example. This work visually refers to a similar painting from John Vanderlyn, titled “Landing of Columbus” (1946). Kaphar illuminates the inequality implicit within this Eurocentric perspective of the event by literally cloaking the prominent figures of the conquering white men, wrapping over their forms within the canvas. He thus shifts the viewer’s focus to the only people left visible: the background “savages” i.e., the Native Americans, portrayed to be as subordinate to the power of white men as the land itself.
Most recently, Kaphar has produced an untitled piece (pictured below) (2017), which engages with Frans Hals’ “Family Portrait” (1648). In a talk about the work, Kaphar discusses the power relations inherent the compositional imagery of the original piece from Hals, coded so as to convey the social superiority of the white figures. For example, the forefront placement of the white man induces a visual hierarchy between him and the other, “lesser” figures, and the use of tokens like gold jewelry and expensive fabrics like silk and lace expresses the social standing of the white characters. In his own replication of Hals’ work, Kaphar paints over the white figures to shift the audience’s gaze to the sole black figure, who recedes into the background of the original work. Significantly, Kaphar employs a unique technique within this work: he mixes his paint with linseed oil. Linseed oil becomes transparent over time, meaning that the erasure of the white figures from the scene is only ever temporary. Concerning this technique, Kaphar claims that he is not intending to eradicate the past, for these paintings serve as an important reminder of the historical subordination of racial minorities. Instead, his goal is to amend them, to shift the audience’s gaze towards the “hidden figures”, so that we can use these historical injustices to begin a discussion of the present.
One way of understanding Kaphar’s work is as an exercise in the reclamation of visual slurs. As evidenced repeatedly throughout history, the practice of reclaiming slurs can be a powerful political move for minorities. Reclaimed or appropriated slurs are uses, by targeted groups, of their own slurs for non-derogatory purposes. They can be used to demarcate the group or to show a sense of intimacy and solidarity, examples of which include the appropriation of the term “slut” by certain branches of the feminist movement, and the appropriation of the term “queer” by the LGBTQIA+ community. These examples also demonstrate the multiplicity of ways in which a slur can be reclaimed: for instance, the reclamation of “queer” seems to be polysemous, as it is not clear that “queer” has preserved its (original, derogatory) meaning upon appropriation by the gay community. Although “queer” was originally used in the late nineteenth century as an offensive slur against homosexuals, the term was reclaimed by the gay community to signify a broad and inclusive celebration of human sexuality, what Michael Stipe has recently characterized as “the final, completely obvious contemporary acceptance and understanding that this enormous world of beauty, sexuality, identity, lust, feeling, excitement, and love isn’t just black and white”.
In cases like these, the meanings of slurring and reclaimed uses of the words “overlap but are not the same”. However, there are also examples of monosemous reclamation: an example of this is “slut”, which was originally meant to pejoratively shame women for their sexuality, and particularly their promiscuity. In reclaiming the term, women accept the descriptive content of the word (high sexual appetites) but reject or transform the evaluative content (that it is wrong for women to enjoy sex). Reclaiming slurs, when done effectively, can be a method of reclaiming socio-political power, as the reappropriation of ethnic and sexual slurs is often an empowering mechanism for an entire community. Through reclamation, alternative minority discourse is able to displace the discourses of power, through transforming the very words used by the majority to denigratingly define and oppress these “others”.
Although I have focused almost exclusively on the transformation of linguistic slurs and stereotypes, it seems clear that they are equally present in other forms of media, in some cases constituting what the philosopher Laurence Blum calls “the visual, or representational, equivalent of an ethnic slur”. Consider, for instance, Mickey Rooney’s racist portrayal of a Chinese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as an Asian with buck teeth, speaking a kind of pidgin English. These images appear to systematically pigeonhole and degrade racial minorities, in much the same way as slurs do. But if slurs and stereotypes can exist in a pictorial or aesthetic mode of expression (which they evidently can), can we also imagine an empowering appropriation and transformation of these problematic images?
Titus Kaphar’s art, understood as a form of visual reclamation, is an answer to this question. Kaphar takes the slurring images, the stereotypical portrayals and pictorial representations of racial inferiority and “otherness”, and he transforms them—sometimes radically so, by painting over them, covering them with ripped papers and wrapping over them in canvas. He does not (and in fact, cannot) rid the works of their racially oppressive histories, just as we saw in the discussion of slurs—the words and the images still carry the scars of their weaponized past, even while being transformed into a positive force towards confronting and moving beyond this past. Similarly with Kaphar’s work: he cannot rewrite the history of European art. Instead, he critically interacts with and appropriates the pieces in such a way as to shift the audience’s perspective away from the traditional approach, towards a more egalitarian standpoint. Kaphar’s work powerfully uses the oppressive pictorial art of the past, and transforms it into a profound statement on racial politics today. In his own words, Titus Kaphar makes paintings and sculptures “that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present.”.
All images © Titus Kaphar
Charlotte Figueroa  is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at St Edmund Hall.