For centuries, painting was one of the primary methods for visually documenting people and events. Of course, these paintings were nearly always executed by a certain kind of person (white, male), and depicted a certain kind of person (patrons, nobility, muses ― i.e., white people).
Today, we have countless other tools and technologies designed to capture and record, from iPhones to surveillance cameras. This radical proliferation of imaging techniques has in turn led to a broader diversity of images. And yet, not all recording tools are created equal. While some venerate their subjects, others incriminate or degrade.
In his latest exhibition “Shifting Skies,” artist Titus Kaphar investigates past and present vehicles of documentation ― from classical landscapes to dashboard cam footage. In doing so, he reveals the threads of discrimination, erasure and oppression that have run throughout. Namely, Kaphar examines how images have historically dehumanized bodies of color and the many imaging devices that have expedited the process.
In his practice, Kaphar blends his role of artist with that of historian, detective and surgeon. He operates on art history as if it were his patient, cutting beneath the surface layer to dig up the inequalities, desires and abuses looming below. Mostly, Kaphar deals with race, exploring how the evolution of images ushered people of color from being largely invisible to being hyper-visible ― constantly surveilled without truly being seen.
Kaphar’s work has long explored how past injustices against people of color don’t just go away — they merely change shape, hovering above the present tense like a shadowy apparition. As Kaphar said in a previous interview with The Huffington Post: “I think history is kind of like a sometimes visible, sometimes invisible armature on which the present is constructed. All history becomes interesting when we can see how the past affects our present.”
The show is named after the diptych above, the first piece Kaphar created in this current body of work. “That painting kind of guided me to where the exhibition was headed,” Kaphar explained in a more recent interview with HuffPost. The left portrait depicts a nude black woman in a pearl necklace, the right, an 18th-century American soldier.
“If you look at those pieces, it’s as if the sky that surrounds him begins to creep into her world, which is monochromatic. Visually, it becomes very clear that some outside force is impacting her world. We, as viewers, might have some opinions as to whether that force was negative or positive.”
“Shifting Skies” illuminates the injustice embedded in the history of art, not just as an academic area of study but as a longstanding mode of historical documentation. For centuries, women’s bodies were solely visualized through the eyes of men, and black bodies hardly at all. Rendered in muted, monochrome tones, the nude woman exists as an apparition, her image conjured through the eyes and hands of her oppressor.
Kaphar’s “Tar Portrait” series also examines representation in 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century portraiture, marring otherwise straightforward images by smothering the subjects’ flesh in tar. The material recalls slave auctions, when black bodies were slicked in grease and tar to look healthier to potential bidders. Here, the stuff fully obscures the identity and humanity of the subject, drowning their features in black gunk.
While the artist’s past-centric works often focus on the lack of visual representation available to people of color, his more contemporary-focused pieces expose the many lowbrow imaging techniques that scrutinize, vilify and control bodies of color ― the mugshot, the bodycam, the YouTube video. When it comes to visualizing people of color, there seems to be a jump from being overlooked to being surveilled, both yielding a similarly odious effect in their refusal to treat people of color as human beings.
“One of the things that is interesting to me about today’s technology is, it has a presence,” Kaphar said. “If there is a painting, the general population might see that image in a museum or an institution and then they leave it behind. We now have the ability to access and re-access these events any moment at any time. There is something really painful and oppressive about that, in terms of not being able to have the silent space to process.”
Kaphar identified the relentless presence of contemporary recording devices in the recording of Sandra Bland’s 2015 arrest. The video, which has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, fuzzily shows a Texas state trooper pulling Bland over for failing to signal a lane change. As the footage continues, the officer grows more aggressive with Bland, eventually removing her from the car and throwing her to the ground.
“I watched the Sandra Bland video and found myself in this horrible loop where I couldn’t stop watching it,” Kaphar said. “I didn’t know what I was searching for, but I knew I was looking for something in that footage. I think I was looking for some kind of alternative ending, which of course is impossible. It ends horribly every time.” Bland was arrested, and found dead in her cell three days later.
Bland is far from the only women of color to lose her humanity and her life at the hands of the prison industrial complex. In his series “Destiny,” Kaphar honors the less publicized women who were abused and degraded while incarcerated. Kaphar created composite portraits culled from the mugshots of women named Destiny, layered one on top of another until their borders grow blurry and their eyes turn dull. They become, in a sense, stereotypes, stripped of their unique personhood and blended together with so much paint.
Before Kaphar began painting women named Destiny, he executed a similar project with men named Jerome ― his father’s name. When researching his father’s prison records, Kaphar was struck by the number of incarcerated men who shared his name. It seemed like a strange coincidence, and Kaphar was motivated to depict them all.
“I started ‘The Jerome Project’ for very personal reasons,” Kaphar said. “But I realized the problems in our criminal justice system were not exclusive to just my father. There was nothing special about my father’s name, about the name Jerome. It simply functioned as a racial identifier.”
After completing “The Jerome Project,” Kaphar spoke on a panel with artists and scholars about mass incarceration at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One woman’s experience stood out. “She talked about giving birth to her son while she was shackled in prison,” Kaphar recalled. “The story broke my heart, I’m a father of two boys; I know no woman gets up and runs away after giving birth. The only reason you would shackle someone would be to dehumanize them.”
The “Destiny” series shows that while some modes of visual representation provide honor and distinction to their subjects, others have a far more treacherous impact on those depicted. As Kaphar put it: “I wanted to create these portraits of these multiple Destinys who had this tragic overlap in their fate.”
Whether being overlooked or ― quite literally ― framed, women of color have long had a precarious relationship with the tools and technologies used to create images ― whether a paintbrush or an iPhone camera. Kaphar manages to express a longstanding and pervasive injustice by weaving together particular and visceral moments. Kaphar reveals the dark shadow of discrimination looming over art and history, where neither absence nor presence can provide bodies of color with safety or dignity.
As Kaphar explained in a previous interview with HuffPost, this same subject matter has driven his work for most of his life. And he expects these same issues to permeate his artistic practice for years to come. “The more I understand the criminal justice related issues that ‘The Jerome Project’ highlights, the more I believe pessimistically that these are issues that our country will be addressing for some time,” he said. “I don’t know what my response will be to it in the future, but I plan to continue the investigation.”
If anything, the recent election of Donald Trump has only ignited Kaphar’s resolve. “It’s time to get to work,” he said. “It’s time for artwork to work. Art has almost always been at the heart of political activism. Challenging art is necessary. It really always has been, but I think more people are going to be thirsting for it now.”