An Interview With Titus Kaphar

By Ladi'Sasha Jones, Public Programs Coordinator, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
March 6, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

As the millennial generation is charged with shifting the country’s policing practices and devaluation of Black humanity, artist Titus Kaphar and The Jerome Project makes those impacted by our criminal justice system visible and human rather than statistics of mass incarceration and criminalization. This is a high time to interrogate the (re)memory of our American experience and collective relationship to its criminal justice system.

We are still asking the same questions of this country and ourselves as we did 50 years ago during the Civil Rights Movement. The same questions that reflect those asked 150 years ago when the 36th Congress issued the 13th Amendment, laying the foundation for the modern American prison system.

It is these parallel legacies of America’s past and contemporary constructions of Black humanity which framed my interview with Titus Kaphar around The Jerome Project and his recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea.

The Jerome Project, installation image at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo credit, Terrence Jennings

Knowing how influential Michelle Alexander’s scholarship and more specifically, The New Jim Crow, was for the Jerome Project, what else was on your reading list? May you share some of your findings or discoveries that emerged during your research on the criminal justice system and mass incarceration?

The most recent book on this subject that has been truly pivotal in my thinking on this subject is Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman’s book Arresting Citizenship. When it comes to the issue of jails and prisons, there are a lot of folks who haven’t had to deal with this system directly who believe that if you find yourself wrapped up in it, you probably deserve it, so what happens to you while you are incarcerated doesn’t concern them. Vesla and Amy’s book does a fantastic job of showing us how, not simply inhumane, but how flawed that reasoning is. They show us how “custodial citizens” ­ those folks who have found themselves in the criminal justice system through jail, parole or probation, and those citizens who find themselves in communities that are heavily policed, are learning about democracy through a system that doesn’t in fact represent the values of the nation as a whole. Their book leaves me with a question. What is the impact of our criminal justice system on our conception of democracy itself? What does it imply about us that we so easily strip the freedoms of our citizens of the values that we hold most sacred as a nation?

January 31 marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th amendment. It was passed by congress on January 31, 1865 then signed by Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865. Georgia was the last state to ratify the amendment on December 6, 1865, making slavery "unconstitutional" through the U.S. What kind of feelings and thoughts this landmark anniversary might evoke in you as it relates to the question of Black humanity?

As significant and remarkable of an event that was, I think we often forget that in our correctional institutions in this country, slavery is not fully dead. Many of the abuses that occurred during slavery were refashioned. Douglas Blackmon delineates the specifics of what he calls “slavery by another name” that continued on for decades after the signing of the 13th amendment, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow shows us how that system transitioned into the contemporary prison industrial complex that we are left with today.

Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014, oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery

Your work draws on iconic historical artworks in its examination of past and contemporary histories. Arturo Schomburg begins his seminal 1925 essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past” by stating, “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” What do you believe to be the role or legacy of Black archival collections in relationship to a more radical future for Black folks across the African Diaspora?

That’s a difficult question to answer for me. I think it would be hard for me to say what the roles of Black archival collections are in general. My personal use for them is as a catalyst for inspiration and a source for research in my varied projects. It’s these kinds of archives that often stand as my defense when I’m told that the kind of imagery or narrative that I am drawing from doesn’t exist.

Do you believe there needs to be a connection between contemporary resistance movements and the art and cultural production of Black artists? What space do Black cultural art institutions occupy within the landscape of contemporary art production?

I don’t think that that should be a dictate. I think that the problems of this world will be a natural outgrowth of some artists’ practice and the celestial and ineffable will be the focus of others. Attempting to create mandates for the production of art in and of itself can be the death nail to creativity. I think the role of these institutions function best as inspiration for production, space making for production (i.e. artist residencies) and as an advocate for the art that is finally produced.

Titus Kaphar, Yet Another Fight for Rememberance, 2014, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Jack Shainman Gallery

As you utilize interventions of erasure, historical fact and fiction, and “white­washing” in your paintings and drawings, do you see yourself as a contributor to constructions of a collective rememory of Black American history?

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it in those terms. I find myself trying to present a more nuanced version of what I know exists but what I don’t often see in many museums or popular media. This draws me to discussions of absence, invisibility or erasure. In many of my projects, I rely on the research of folks who came before me and in their work I see an emphasis on re-memory that leave its residue on my work. I think it’s important for this issue of re­memory to be engaged beyond communities of color. Many of the works in this last exhibition address not exclusively, but fundamentally American challenges. It seems to me that there won’t be significant progress until the entire nation takes on this issue of re­memory. Otherwise, what happens is that certain groups in the country continue to write fictional histories and call them textbooks that gloss over the tragedies of American history.

Watch the Livestream studio salon conversation between Titus Kaphar and Dr. Khalil G. Muhammad.