Titus Kaphar Explored Renaissance Christian Imagery and Presented a Black Jesus Painting in a Deconsecrated Church in Brussels

Culture Type

Victoria L. Valentine - Culture Type - 26 December 2020

A DECONSECRATED CHURCH in Brussels, Belgium, served as the venue for a recent exhibition of religious paintings by Titus Kaphar. “The Evidence of Things Unseen” was presented by Maruani Mercier gallery at Gesù Church.

 

Kaphar’s practice is a sustained interrogation of Western art. He challenges historic narratives and questions what is seen and unseen. He has also been considering notions of absence and presence through the lens of the contemporary moment. “From a Tropical Space,” his first exhibition at Gagosian gallery in New York addressed Black mothers and loss. The show was on view concurrently with a presentation of new and recent paintings focused on Renaissance Christian imagery in Brussels. 

 

The exhibition was staged in a time-worn space rich with grand gestures of Neo-Gothic architecture. The body of work explored Catholic iconography, questioned the racial representations of biblical figures, and presented a range of physical interventions for which Kaphar is recognized. The canvases were cut, crumpled, folded, and installed on the floor sans stretcher frame. 

 

Silhouettes of god-like athletes, captured mid-air, were displayed. Other paintings were embellished with tar or submerged in tar. From Kaphar’s ongoing Jerome Project, a large portrait of a Black man was on view. The head portrait is one of many the artist has rendered against a gold-leaf background and dipped in tar. 

 

The project began in 2011, when Kaphar was searching for his father’s prison records. His name is Jerome and the artist discovered dozens of men with arrest records who shared the same first and last name as his father. They became his subjects. Beyond their individual circumstances, the portraits raise larger issues of mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of Black men in U.S. prisons. Visually the works reference Byzantine holy portraits and depictions of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians.

“This body of work is not a critique of the church, per se, it’s a visual representation of those religious stories, those stories that often took place in Africa and the Middle East, but somehow forget what people in Africa and the Middle East actually look like.” — Titus Kaphar

In “Jesus Noir” (2020), Kaphar revisited a 19th century French painting, duct taping a portrait of a young Black man over an image of a white Jesus. His friend and studio studio assistant served as his model. “I wanted it to feel like an add on, I didn’t want it to feel as though it was always meant to be,” he told CBS News. The New Haven, Conn.-based artist also discussed the exhibition and the painting with France 24, a public television station. 

 

“My grandfather was a minister and I come from a long line of ministers and so this body of work is not a critique of the church, per se, it’s a visual representation of those religious stories, those stories that often took place in Africa and the Middle East, but somehow forget what people in Africa and the Middle East actually look like,” Kapar said. 

 

“In that particular painting… I painted a portrait of (my studio assistant) and duct taped it to the surface of the painting and this act of urgency trying to find space for saints that look like, well, I’ll say the saints that exist in my day-to-day life.” 

 

“Titus Kaphar: The Evidence of Things Unseen” was presented by Maruani Mercier gallery at Gesù Church in Brussels, Belgium, from Oct. 16-Nov. 12, 2020

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