Titus Kaphar is a painter and sculptor, best known for his TIME Magazine portrait of Ferguson protestors, and for The Jerome Project, in which he explores the volume of black men trapped in the criminal justice system. In Kaphar’s TED Talk (released today), he applies an on-the-spot amendment to a classic painting, revealing a slave’s hidden story that would otherwise go overlooked. Kaphar received an immediate standing ovation.
In his work as a fine artist, Titus Kaphar aims to correct the representation of African Americans – often obscured – by highlighting racial injustice with paint and other tactile media. In essence, he creates two works of art: one that shows the original through new eyes, and a second, original piece that acts alongside it.
“We can’t erase this history, it’s real. We have to know it.”
— Titus Kaphar, TED2017
Underscoring his words with slashes of white paint, Kaphar 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.”