Visual Reclamation

Visual Reclamation

By Charlotte Figueroa for the Oxonian Review - March 2019

Titus Kaphar is a contemporary American painter whose work critically interacts with the racial history of fine art, and particularly with the portrayal and representation of minorities in visual mediums. Through his works, we come to understand an unexplored power of art: that of reappropriating and transforming harmful images. Kaphar’s art engages with historically oppressive representations of minorities, and ultimately overcomes the denigrating messages of racial inferiority through a powerful process of reclamation.

Kaphar is well known for his “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (2015) and “Absconded from the Household of the President of the United States” (2016), two visually powerful works which function as critical interpretations of presidential portraits by Gilbert Stuart (from 1821 and 1796, respectively).  Kaphar’s works can be read as an exposé against the idealized infallibility of the American founding fathers, by visually linking both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to their slave-owning practices.

In “Behind the Myth of Benevolence” (pictured left), Kaphar takes a portrait of Jefferson (stylistically reminiscent of the portrait from Stuart), and draws it back as a curtain to reveal a portrait of a black woman.  This positioning reveals the dark truth behind the façade: the image of a powerful political figure who wrote the Declaration of Independence, pulled aside to reveal the reality of a man who owned hundreds of African-American slaves.  We find a similar message in Kaphar’s “Absconded from the Household of the President of the United States,”(right) where a portrait of Washington is obscured by a shredded document: a newspaper advertisement from 1796 for the capture of Washington’s fugitive slave, Oney Judge.

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