“Painting is a visual language where everything is meaningful, important, and coded,” says new speaker Titus Kaphar in his TED Talk, which brought the Vancouver audience to its feet. How can we amend our visual intelligence? With no small amount of dynamism, Kaphar shows how we can acknowledge our past, while changing the gaze historically applied to it.
“Because of compositional hierarchy, it’s hard to see other things,” says painter and sculptor Titus Kaphar, standing before his (mostly) faithful copy of Frans Hals’ 17th-century painting of an affluent Dutch family. As reported on the TED blog, “[Explaining] key features of the painting—the exaggerated height of the father, the outsize gold necklace on the mother and the lace on her gown—he gestures with a brush loaded with white paint, obscuring parts of his own art as he brings the hidden story of the painting into view. By repainting his own painting, Kaphar makes real the idea of amending our shared history—rather than ignoring or eradicating it, he suggests we shift our focus and confront what these images represent.”
“Historically speaking, I can find out more about the lace [on the woman’s dress] than I can about the [black] character here.”
— Titus Kaphar, TED2017 Conference
To Kaphar, “Painting is a visual language where everything is meaningful, important and coded.” Underscoring his words with slashes of white paint, he pulls the small, unsmiling figure of a young black man into relief. “We can’t erase this history, it’s real. We have to know it.”
This is not defacement or eradication. Kaphar likens it to the American Constitution, which, via amendment, creates new measures of justice while leaving room for what came before. It is a way of refocusing the gaze that history itself has limited to privileged stories. Movingly, he talks about being ejected from an art history professor’s office for wanting to learn about the 14 pages in his textbook that briefly discussed Black identity in art. He realized that he couldn’t wait for answers to be offered, he had to make them himself.
In his artwork, and in talks, Kaphar exposes how all depictions, no matter how personal or grandiose, are always fictional, imperfect, and capable of being remade. As he told the rapt audience at TED, standing before his freshly-painted canvas, honesty is his guiding force, “wrestling with the past while speaking to the diversity of the present.”