More than music and more than movies, visual art feels like the most powerful expression of protest. Yes, any work by an artist is personal but the visual arts place you in between a personal narrative and the medium, in a position to see a critique from all angles. A personal bias is taken away, the critique personified: the work is more charged because the literal voice of an artist is absent.
Titus Kaphar is very much this artist. His paintings and sculptures are the manifestation of America’s past and present history presented to you without him in the way. They are contemporary and cool and—most importantly—cutting. If you were looking for the heir to Kara Walker’s politicizing the black body, Kaphar is here to do that in an even more blunt way.
Kaphar’s paintings are obsessed with history and showing us all the facts of how America was constructed—and what parts of our past were erased to create what we have today. He takes portraits of presidents and white figureheads who “made” the country and places them against the black bodies they took advantage of. Sometimes the historical figure is removed for the persons who made them to peek out of or, alternatively, selective bodies are erased to zoom in on who was forgotten or taken advantage of or is now incredibly important.
The work is also aggressively contemporary and attempting to stay in present protests. As Vice highlighted at the start of the year, Kaphar is creating works present in the cultural conversation surrounding Ferguson and the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Marton, and more. They take bodies of protest and literally whitewash the hands in the air, the cries, the history involved with past and present enslavement. Time is trapped in a narrative outside of the bodies of others and Kaphar is distilling them in these surreal, fucked up scenes where bodies are blanked out, forgotten, forced into nothingness.
More than any other work of protest in 2015, Karphar’s feels the most searing. You want to talk to the works to understand the issues and to explain what good work is being done—but you can’t: they’re stills capturing our fucked up United States and all of our fucked up issues. As we close 2015, we must reflect on what happened this year. Before the terrorists attacks and before the gun violence, we were crusading for saving the black body. Looking at Kaphar’s work is a reminder of how far we haven’t come.
Shoutout to one of my favorite Tumblrs for tipping me off to this.