Photo: Installation view. Titus Kaphar: Shifting Skies. Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. December 16, 2016 – January 28, 2017. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Several years ago, I first wrote the words, “Destiny is the handshake between God and Man,” not fully realizing yet, that the covenant was not between the individual but with the species as a whole. Our destiny is not inherently singular; it is intertwined by the forces of humanity working for or against the greater good of the whole.
Those who fail to see our interconnection are invariably complicit in the exploitation and destruction through unconscionable disregard masquerading as willful ignorance. They take comfort in the belief cognitive dissonance will protect them, but such logical fallacies only cause a greater fall from grace.
Those who understand the fact that injustice to one is injustice to all continuously seek to elevate their understanding of the problem so that they may become a part of the solution in the way they are best designed to contribute to it. For American artist Titus Kaphar, this has been an ongoing quest, one in which he uses his art to investigate and expose our presumptions of criminality and guilt in a system that was purposely designed to exploit and enslave the most vulnerable.
Consider the mugshot and the way in which the photograph is use to create a portrait of the criminal. Such is the nature of the photograph that it demands we focus on the subject, redirecting our attention from the person standing behind the lens. If, and when, a demographic is repeated en masse to the point of ad nauseum, an archetype emerges: one that the power structure can use and dehumanize by playing to the preconditioned fears of the populace.
Here in these United States, ever since police departments formed for the sole purpose of capturing runaway slaves, the government has maintained and profited off the creation of a black criminal class. With the advent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the dog whistle of “law and order” politics has run amok, reinforcing false narratives in the name of corporate profits and kickbacks.
While people come and go through the system (as well as through the mortal plane), what remains is the evidence crafted to manipulate our perceptions of a “criminal class.” The mugshot, trotted out by mainstream media to reinforce prejudices and redirect attention from the system itself, is one of the least admired works of photography. It is made is moment of duress, for few would willfully pose in this manner. Whether guilty or innocent, the mugshot is archived into a database that alters the way we consider that person from here on out.
American artist Titus Kaphar first began engaging with mugshots in the prison databases when he looked up his father after a couple of decades of total disconnection. He discovered his father, Jerome, and 99 other men who shared the same first and last name, had been imprisoned for nearly identical crimes. Mugshot after mugshot of black men, all met with a destiny most hope to never know.
Kaphar responded in the only way he knew how: he created “The Jerome Project” (2014), a series of paintings of these mugshots layered with tar and gold leaf, that were shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem. And with this transformation, things began to change. No longer was the mugshot a lowly photograph; under Kaphar’s hand it became the highest of the highs: an historical portrait of the people of our times.
“The Jerome Project” opened the door to something more, as Kaphar became inspired to create portraits of women after hearing the story of a formerly incarcerated women named Destiny, who had given birth while shackled to a hospital bed. This haunting image is the truth of America today, a country in which slavery flourishes and profits at the expense of the citizens themselves. “Destiny” is not merely a woman’s name—it is the story of America.
Kaphar returned to the prison database, typed in “Destiny” and discovered countless women’s photographs. He went back to work, creating a new series of paintings. A six-part series of “Destiny” paintings is currently on view in a two-venue exhibition, Shifting Skies, currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, through January 28, 2017. The exhibition includes a selection of sculptures from Kaphar’s “Monumental Inversions” series that looks at the way alternate histories are hidden beneath the dominant narrative.
Kaphar’s work invokes the words of Malcolm X, who observed, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed.” In “Destiny,” he begins to restore something that has been lost: the humanity, the conscience, and the empathy we need to begin to heal the wounds that are continuously inflicted upon the citizens of our nation.
All artworks: ©Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.