The form follows the torture

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Victor Sattler for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - 2 October 2020


In the United States, Titus Kaphar is considered to be the central artist of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In the Gesù church in Brussels his art meets two of its sources: religion and Europe.  


In 2017 you put the finishing touches to your painting “Shifting the Gaze” in front of an audience. It was actually a meticulous copy of Frans Hals ’“ Family in a Landscape ”- at least until you painted over the white faces of the family and thus drew the gaze to the black servant. Then you announced that thanks to an oil, the color would become transparent and the white faces would slowly return. Similar to a magician who declares: Nobody was harmed here. What ts more important to you when directing your gaze, the act or the result?  

Maybe it leads to an answer, what I experienced after this performance. The hidden figures in the background are often the first thing I see. I've trained to find them and I identify with them too. But after the show several white people came up to me and said, “I didn't even see the black figure before you painted over the others.” That was a shock to me too. So I guess the answer to your question is different for the audience than it is for me. For me, painting over the whites is more of a ceremony and a ritual because I can naturally see the figures in the shadows.  


You crumple up and cut up your pictures and sew them back together. On top of that, tar, nails or Shackles are used. You described it as a “torture of the painting,” which you would prefer to a painting about torture. What does the picture confess under your hands?  

It is really a kind of interrogation in which the pictures of artists from earlier times tell me how even their composition serves to maintain racial hierarchies. The black figures on the left or right side mostly dutifully adore the European figures in the middle. On the one hand, their presence gives those commissioning the images authority. At the same time, they are essential for the composition, structure and balance.  


The form follows the function?  

That is the biggest and the most ironic admission of the pictures. Even if the black servants were not valued as human beings, it was for their decisive function. If you take it away, the entire painting would be unbalanced.  


Now I have introduced you as a troublemaker. Your philosophy is that the past should only be "supplemented, not erased", but rather one that ts pleasing and able to attract a majority. Or?  

Might be. At least in my home country America, there is currently a majority. But the discussion about the toppling of monuments, as it was conducted here, was binary: “Get rid of it or keep it”. It was characterized by fear of loss, without nuances and without the inclusion of artists. The real revolutionary step would be to take the old statues from their proverbial pedestals and place new works next to them in order to introduce new artists to the conversation: “That is the past and that next to it is the present, which in Towards a common future. “


The present and the past rolled into one: just like how you take the police photos of black prisoners on the Internet to paint them as Byzantine saints? Is that a critique of religious iconography?  

No criticism, on the contrary. I come from a long lineage of deeply devout Christians. I do not practice myself, but I would neither criticize nor defend the church. This is especially important when we are talking about an exhibition that will take place in a former church in Brussels.  


Who are you visiting in Europe? You learned your craft from the old masters of the Renaissance. Now use their tricks against them.

There is nothing I adore more than western painting, With all its conflicts, racisms and challenges. This is where my “add, not erase” comes from. I cannot deny that when I stand in front of a Rubens I am transported to another world and that when I stand in front of a Velazquez, my spirit is lifted up. So there is always this duality in my work. Or to put it more extreme-ly: this love-hate relationship that I  feel about an art history that doesn't seem to care about me or my kind at all. I still use every opportunity to see them with my own eyes.  


And you become, in a sense, the Old Master yourself. In your incubator in New Haven, students learn from art students who in turn can use the network. What ts a secret in the art world that you share with the next generation?  

There are always other people who support you as you rise as an artist and who you have to remember later. I think that would be the most important thing to preach: whoever is successful, has a responsibility to bring others upstairs. I struggled with the art world and still feel more like a visitor there. It's okay, that's not why I feel kind of bad or anything, I love my home in New Haven and there I feel an obligation to other artists.  


What do you need to know to paint black skin? What about the color? 

The thing is how many other colors you have to mix and how many versions of black skin there are in the world. You will need purple, a little crimson too. You will need Persian rose, you will need yellow ocher, you will need red umber as well as burnt umber. And, in some cases, even a little bit of white. It is really complex and little known how black skin reflects light. But if you do it right, there is a chance that it will work with the white inside out.