Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism In Art? Western art contains countless paintings and sculptures that reveal a painful history of racism. We can't erase that history, but artist Titus Kaphar has begun the long and hard work of amending it.
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Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism In Art?

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Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism In Art?

Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism In Art?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And not too long ago, painter and sculptor Titus Kaphar was visiting the Natural History Museum in New York with his kids.

TITUS KAPHAR: That's right - two kids, two boys.

RAZ: And how old are they?

KAPHAR: Savion is 10, and Daven is 8.

RAZ: So Titus and his boys were walking up to the museum, and right at the entrance, there's this famous sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt.

KAPHAR: It's this towering, larger-than-life bronze sculpture that sits on this 6-foot-tall pedestal. And Teddy Roosevelt sits on the horse, boldly controlling the animal with one arm. He's proud, and sitting straight up and charging forward, it seems. And then on either side of him are an African-American and a Native American.

I've walked past that sculpture, I've been in that museums - more times than I can count. But when we're walking up, my oldest son sees that sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt, and without skipping a beat, my son says, how come he gets to ride while they have to walk? And it stopped me in my tracks.


KAPHAR: There was so much history that we would have to go through to try to explain that.

RAZ: Titus Kaphar picks up the story from the TED stage.


KAPHAR: It's a question that I probably would've never really asked. But fundamentally, what he was saying was, that doesn't look fair, and why is this thing that's so not fair sitting outside of such an amazing institution? And his question got me wondering, is there a way for us to amend our public sculptures - not erase them. But is there a way to amend them?

RAZ: And the reason Titus uses the word amend is because he doesn't want us to forget our past, but to confront it. He wants us to take a hard look at all of the paintings and sculptures and monuments that glorify a difficult and complicated history.

KAPHAR: It's a very painful history, and we have to find ways to address it. We can't pretend like not talking about it is going to work. We tried that. We have to create a space for conversation. Something has to be done.

RAZ: So today on the show - ideas about how art has the power to evoke a feeling or shift consciousness, start a difficult conversation, even influence a debate about our past and present and future. As for Titus, he's been wrestling with these questions for years, ever since he was an art student back in the late 1990s.


KAPHAR: One of the last art history classes, I will not forget. It was one of those survey art history classes. Anybody ever have one of those survey art history classes where they try to teach you the entire history of art? I'm talking about cave paintings and Jackson Pollock, like, just crunched together all in the same - it doesn't really work, but they try anyway.

Well, at the beginning of the semester, I looked at the book, and in this 400-page book was about a 14-page section that was on black people and painting. Now, this was a crammed-in section that had representations of black people in painting and black people who painted. It was poorly curated.


KAPHAR: Let's just put it that way. Nonetheless, I was really excited about it because in all the other classes that I had, we didn't even have that conversation. So imagine my surprise on the day that we're supposed to go over that particular chapter, my professor announces, we're going to skip this chapter today because we do not have time to go through it.

Whoa, I'm sorry. Hold on, Professor. Professor, I'm sorry. This is a really important chapter to me. Are we going to go over it at any point? Titus, we don't have time for this. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please, I really need to understand. It - clearly, the author thinks that this is significant. Why are we skipping over this? Titus, I do not have time for this.

I went to her office hours. I ended up getting kicked out of her office. I went to the dean. The dean finally told me, I can't force her to teach anything. And I knew in that moment, if I wanted to understand this history, if I wanted to understand the roles of those folks who had to walk, I was probably going to have to figure that out myself.

RAZ: So at this point, what did you start to notice about this history, about how Africans and African-Americans were being portrayed in art?

KAPHAR: By and large, the representation of black people and the history of Western painting is enslaved, in servitude or impoverished. They are often pushed to the corners of the compositions. They're hidden. They are in the shadows. And so what we have are these representations of black people that don't reflect their humanity.

RAZ: And you're thinking, we're not talking about this; this is not - this is, like, not something we're even acknowledging.

KAPHAR: I mean, absolutely. I mean, by that time, I had already fallen in love with the making of paintings, and so my particular interest was trying to teach myself how to represent black skin. And when I see those paintings, these are the characters that I feel first. I know where they're hidden. I know how they're hidden.

RAZ: And so in your art, the work you do, you sort of bring these characters out of hiding, right?

KAPHAR: Exactly. Sometimes there's an image that I will find in a history book, and I will remake that painting. And once I've represented - re-presented - the original painting, then I attempt to insert a narrative that pulls a hidden figure more to the foreground, more to the surface.


KAPHAR: Above you right here on the slide is a painting by Frans Hals. This is one of the kinds of images that was in that chapter. I taught myself how to paint by going to museums and looking at images like this.

RAZ: Can you - Titus, can you describe the Frans Hals painting - what it looks like?

KAPHAR: It's a very prototypical European portrait of an aristocratic, very wealthy family. You have this expansive landscape in the background. You have a little dog off to the side. We see that the father figure in the painting is at the highest point in the composition. And then in the background, there is this little black child.


KAPHAR: I want to show you something. I made this. You'll see there are some slight differences in the painting.

RAZ: And I should mention here, Titus, that what you're doing at this point in your talk is you're unveiling on the stage your own recreation of that same Frans Hals painting.

KAPHAR: That's right.


KAPHAR: There's more written about dogs in art history than there are about this other character here. I can find out more about the lace that the woman is wearing in this painting than I can about this character here - about his dreams, about his hopes, about what he wanted out of life. All this art history helped me to realize that painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important. It's coded. But sometimes because of the compositional hierarchy, it's hard to see other things.

RAZ: All right, so let me just break in because at this point in your talk, the brushstrokes, which is what we're hearing in the background - you are actually painting over the images of the other family members - the white family members - in what - you know, what looks like white paint. And so the only figure that's left on the canvas is that little black child that Frans Hals had meant to fade into the background.

KAPHAR: That's right (laughter). That's - I mean, that's absolutely right. In the original painting, this black figure is so underfocused that it is difficult to see him as individual, to see him as a person. So in many cases in the paintings that I make like this, I take brush to canvas and try to bring alive of what I see and try to illuminate what I think the original painter didn't see. And so I am connected to this this black figure who was in the shadows, and I had the exciting opportunity and privilege to sort of pull him out.

RAZ: But at the same time - and this is important to point out because I was lucky enough to be there and see this - you're not just whitewashing these other figures. You're not actually erasing them, right?

KAPHAR: Exactly, and so the paint that I'm applying - this white paint with extra amounts of linseed oil in it, extra amount of Damar varnish in it - will, in fact, become more translucent over time. And so those figures will always be set back a little bit, but they will not disappear. They will not be erased.


KAPHAR: I don't want you to think that this is about eradication. It's not. We can't erase this history. It's real. We have to know it. What I'm trying to do, what I'm trying to show you is how to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily. I'm trying to answer that question that my son had. Why do some have to walk?

What is the impact of these kinds of sculptures at museums, of these kinds of paintings on some of our most vulnerable in society, seeing these kind of depictions of themself (ph) all the time? I want to make paintings, sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present. And we can't do that by taking an eraser and getting rid of stuff. That's just not going to work.

I think that we should do it in the same way the American Constitution works. When we have a situation where we want to change a law in the American Constitution, we don't erase the other one. Alongside that is an amendment, something that says, this is where we were, but this is where we are right now. I figure, if we can do that, then that will help us understand a little bit about where we're going.

RAZ: In a moment, Titus Kaphar on how we can amend our public sculptures and national monuments - I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - how art can change us. And for artist Titus Kaphar, art has the power to help us reconcile where we've been and where we want to go.

So Titus, you know, you point out that art can shape perceptions and reinforce even the most insidious and destructive views. And of course, right now, there's a lot of debate - heated debate - happening about public monuments in the U.S., and some people, you know, want to keep them, and others think they're inappropriate and racist and want to tear them down. And I'm just curious, like, what do you think about this?

KAPHAR: If the question is binary - keep it or tear it down - tear it down. But the question doesn't have to be binary. I think if we engage a new generation of contemporary artists to make new monuments that stand next to these old monuments and force those old monuments into a dialogue, I think we have an opportunity to create a new civic space around these monuments that can actually help us move towards the resolution of these years, these generations of racism that those old sculptures represent.

RAZ: Because, I mean, in your artwork, you deliberately aren't trying to erase history. I mean, that is the core of what you do.

KAPHAR: You know, you change the name of the street, right? And then it goes from whatever Klans member's name it was, and then you put Martin Luther King Drive on there. I don't ever want it to be forgotten that someone got away with that, with using that name. This symbol of racism placard on our streets, placard on our squares, artwork, sculptures, monuments - I don't want us to forget that.

We have to ask ourselves, how did that happen? How was it that someone said, I want to make a monument to this Confederate soldier in this area which is surrounded by people that this man fought to suppress? My concern is that it can be an easy cop-out.

RAZ: Yeah.

KAPHAR: We can just change the name and pretend like that decision was never made, and no one actually has to take responsibility. But if the thing stands there and the contemporary artist comes in and makes another piece that is just unbelievably poignant, and it sits boldly next to this older sculpture, then all of a sudden, that oppressive visual voice that that object has on the people who walk by gets silenced. And it gets silenced without having to tear it down.

RAZ: I mean, do you really think that art has the power to move the dial - like, move the needle in a really significant way?

KAPHAR: I do. I do. I mean, I have this dream of this new WPA where we begin to put art in squares again and murals on walls, and buildings and things. And in that, it would create a space for conversation. It's not going to solve the problem, but it does say in a very strong, in a very bold way that we are moving towards acknowledging this as a nation and saying, look, this does not reflect our national values, this does not reflect our Constitution, and we are trying to acknowledge that. We are trying to repair that, and we are trying to move forward.

RAZ: That's artist Titus Kaphar. You can see his talk and the final version of the painting Titus started on the TED stage by going to ted.npr.org.


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