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Decolonizing Art Through Amendment

Titus Kaphar is a Black American artist whose paintings and installations reflect historical moments in the United States. He does not work solely with one media, instead “he cuts, crumples, shrouds, shreds, stitches, tars, twists, binds, erases, breaks, tears, and turns the paintings and sculptures he creates” to create pieces that reveal hidden truths and shift the viewers gaze to see what is missing or overlooked.


In the chapter titled, Decolonial Perspectives on Education and Development by Pablo De Monte and Lerato Pasholi, the authors provide discriminate between decolonization and decoloniality by stating “decolonization, in the strict sense, is about reversing colonization and thus aims towards the removal of ‘official’ colonialism” (McCowan et al., 2022). On the other side,“decoloniality is a framework for articulating and challenging the history and current configuration of the modern world, starting, crucially, with the placing of coloniality at the center” (McCowan et al., 2022).


Kaphar’s work is a clear example of decoloniality within art, as he argues for the amendment of artistic pieces and not their complete removal. In his TedTalk, Can art amend history?

He starts the talk by describing how his young son’s question, how come he [Theodore Roosevelt] gets to ride and the other two have to walk? In reference to statue at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where Theodore Roosevelt is riding a horse, while a Native American is walking on his left side and an African American on his right side. In his young son’s eyes it was an issue of fairness.


This caused Kaphar to ask himself, “is there a way for us to amend our public sculptures, our national monuments?” (Kaphar, 2017 1:43) He further clarified “not to erase them, but to amend them?” (Kaphar, 2017 1:51). To do this he suggests taking an example from the U.S Constitution, where nothing is erased, only added, it is a working document showing the growth of the nation, where the U.S was and where they are in the present (Kaphar, 2017 11:37).

He then demonstrated to the audience how to challenge the history of colonialism in the art world. He unveiled a large replica of Dutch painter Frans Hals’, painting titled Family Group in a Landscape (1645-1648). It is then Kaphar affirms he made this near perfect replica. Kaphar proceeds to give the audience a lesson in art history, while defacing his own painting. using wide, erratic brush strokes of white paint, he systematically paints over each person in the painting, while explaining, what the original artist was conveying, that silk dresses are expensive, gold jewelry is expensive, and lace trim is expensive. By the time he is done, everyone in the painting has been painted over, but one boy, one boy with dark skin, standing behind everyone else. While Kaphar never says “slave” or “servant” it can be deduced that the only figure left is a slave/servant, which was also a sign of wealth.


Back to the idea of amending history, Kaphar shares that linseed oil was added to the white paint, it it becomes transparent over time. He did not erase the family, he shifted our gaze for this moment in time. Kaphar then gives a heartfelt speech about the future of his art;


“I want to make paintings and I want to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present, and we can’t do that by taking an erasure and getting rid of stuff, that is not going to work, suggest we do the same as the U.S constitution, when we make an amendment we don’t something

that says were we were but this says where we are right now, if we do that we can understand where we are going” (Kaphar, 2017 11:37).


Below are examples of his work with descriptions cited sources. The final painting is an example of a class activity. The amount of hints given can be altered to fit different ages/abilities. Teachers can create a lesson plan around the essential question: What are the hidden histories, and how do we make them visible?


I highly recommend watching Titus Kaphar’s TedTalk; Can Art Amend History?


Kaphar’s copy of Frans Hals’, painting titled Family Group in a Landscape (1645-1648).

Using white paint and linseed oil (which will cause the white to fade to clear over time), Kaphar painted over the family, whose original portrait, depicted the women in silk and lace dresses, with gold jewelry, and the father as the tallest, all these elements are to convey the families wealth and influence.


Kaphar describes it as “shifting our gaze” to the lone person in the picture, presumably the families slave.


Kaphar created this on his TedTalk, Can art amend history? 2017.


“This is painting is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and yet it is not…The woman who sits here is not just simply a representation of Sally Hemings; she is more a symbol of many Black women whose stories have been shrouded in the narratives of our deified founding fathers”

-Titus Kaphar (Valentine, 2023)

Sally Heming was an enslaved African American on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation and long rumored to be his mistress, bearing several of his children. This once rumor was put to rest recently when DNA results linked Heming’s children with the Jefferson bloodline (2020).

Thomas Jefferson was an Author of the American Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (2020).

From Ravi Ghoush’s article, Titus Kaphar reveals black absence in the STARKEST terms.

“After a summer of death and protest, Titus Kaphar’s new show relies on the power of omission to stress the traumas of living under white supremacy,” wrote Ravi Ghosh in his piece on the American artist’s recent Gagosian New York show. The works on display featured Black mothers caring for their young children in suburban American settings, but, in each case, the children had been cut from the images by scalpel, reducing them to mere silhouettes—to deeply haunting effect. This pertinent painting featured both in the show and on the cover of TIME magazine following George Floyd’s death. Kaphar said of its protagonist, “In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies” (Ghosh, 2020).


The original (shown top) is titled B1970.1 by (attributed to) John Verelst, ca. 1675–1734 and is part of the Yale Center for British Art. From October 2020 through May 2021 it will be replaced with Kaphar’s version below.


Of the original painting, the Yale Center for British Arts provides a description on their website, “While the children in the background are shown freely at play, the child in the foreground is shown at work. Like many other depictions of people of African descent in British portraits from this period, the boy’s identity has been largely ignored. The collar on his neck is of a type seen in at least fifty other paintings made in Britain between 1660 and 1760. Even though the identity of figures of African descent in these paintings are often unknown, for the most part the portraits depict individuals, taken from life” (Martin et al.).

Kaphar (bottom) has created a replica of B1970.1, crumpled it, taken the boy, enlarged, and placed his face in a gilded frame similar to the way a wealthy patron’s portrait would be displayed.


On their website Yale notes that “the paintings also point specifically to the invidious practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of bringing children (mainly boys under ten years old) to Britain to work as domestic servants in elite households. The enslaved child depicted in B1970.1 would have served as a “page,” that is a child attendant as part of the household of one of the seated men.


Two different centuries, same fight.

The Fight for Remembrance Part II, 2014 depicts a black American Civil War (1861-1865) soldier in his Union Army uniform.

The former slaves and black free men often do not get the same recognition for their service to war efforts. By the end of the Civil War 10% of the Union army were black men (2017). Not in just the Civil War, but all wars the U.S has been involved with. 1.2 million Black Americans served in all branches of the U.S military in WW II, but segregation remained (Clark, 2020). This meant “there were separate blood banks, hospitals or wards, medical staff, barracks and recreational facilities for Black soldiers” (Clark, 2020). To sum it up: “They fought for democracy overseas while being treated like second-class citizens by their own country” (Clark, 2020). The same can be said of the Civil War soldiers- they fought for freedom of slavery only to be restricted by the Jim Crow laws.

The second painting, Yet for Another Fight for Remembrance, 2014, was commissioned by Time Magazine as part of its cover dedicated to the protests in Ferguson MO., against the police killing of Mike Brown (Valentine, 2020).


Knowing what you do about Titus Kaphar’s art style and mission to “shift your gaze” (Kaphar, 2017) to see the stories that are untold in history, write a caption of the meaning behind this painting.


Hints: Here are some Historical context clues as well as other elements to consider meaning.

Man: black, wearing Union Army soldiers’ uniform, holding hands with the woman and his arms around her.

Both are sitting as for a portrait (looking at the painter/viewer)

U.S Civil War: (1861-1865) was fought to keep the United States whole by preventing the South from succeeding and forming their own country. Later it became about ending slavery.

Woman: white, of marrying age, dressed in mid-1800’s

Title

Civil: Polite, established social norms

Union: Together, joined, another name for marriage

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Bibliography

Biography.com editors. (2020, July 29). Sally Hemings. Biography.com. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.biography.com/history-culture/sally-hemings


Clark, A. (2020, August 5). Black Americans who served in WWII faced segregation abroad ... - history. History.com. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.history.com/news/black-soldiers-world-war-ii-discrimination


Ghosh, W. by R. (2020, December 11). Titus Kaphar reveals black absence in the STARKEST terms. ELEPHANT. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://elephant.art/titus-kaphar-reveals-black-absence-in-the-starkest-terms-11122020/


Kaphar, T. (2014). Behind the Myth of Benevolence [Sally Heming and Thomas Jefferson]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/work/; Kaphar Studio.


Kaphar, T. (2014). The Fight for Remembrance Part Ii [Union Soldier Portrait]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/fight-for-rememberance-2/; Kaphar Studios.


Kaphar, T. (2014). Yet for Another Fight for Remembrance [Ferguson Protests]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/yet-another-fight-for-remembrance-2014/; Kaphar Studios.


Kaphar, T. (2015). Civil Union [Interracial Couples Portrait (circa 1861)]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/civil-union-ii-2015/; Kaphar Studio.


Kaphar, T. (2016). Enough About You [ B1970.1 reimagined]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/enough-about-you-2016/; Kaphar Studios.


Kaphar, T. (2017, Month). Can art amend history? [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/titus_kaphar_can_art_amend_history/transcript?language=en


Kaphar, T. (2017). Shifting the Gaze [Family Group in a Landscape reimagined]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/work/; Kaphar Studio.


Kaphar, T. (2020). Analogous Colors [Time Magazine Cover]. https://www.kapharstudio.com/analogous-colors-2020/; Kaphar Studio.


Martin, C. J., James, E., Lamphier, A., Misura, L., Thompson, D. K., & Town, E. (n.d.). New light on the group portrait of Elihu Yale, his family, and an enslaved child. Yale Center for British Art. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://britishart.yale.edu/new-light-group-portrait-elihu-yale-his-family-and-enslaved-child


McCowan, T., Unterhalter, E., Del Monte, P., & Posholi, L. (2022). Decolonial Perspectives on Education and International Development. In Education and international development: An introduction (pp. 79–82). essay, Bloomsbury Academic, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


National Archives and Records Administration. (2017, September 1). Black soldiers in the U.S. military during the Civil War. National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war#:~:text=By%20the%20end%20of%20the,30%2C000%20of%20infection%20or%20disease.


Titus Kaphar Bio. Titus Kaphar. (2022, December 30). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.kapharstudio.com/about/


Titus Kaphar, analogous colors, 2020. ELEPHANT. (2020, December 18). Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://elephant.art/iotd/titus-kaphar-analogous-colors-2020/


Valentine, V. L. (2020, April 11). Titus Kaphar paints Ferguson protesters for Time Magazine. Culture Type. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.culturetype.com/2014/12/10/titus-kaphar-paints-ferguson-protesters-for-time-magazine/


Valentine, V. L. (2023, January 26). National Portrait Gallery: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-day explore 'unseen' narratives in historic portraiture. Culture Type. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from https://www.culturetype.com/2018/03/28/titus-kaphar-and-ken-gonzales-day-explore-unseen-narratives-in-historic-portraiture-in-new-national-portrait-gallery-exhibition/

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Author: Samantha Potts

Samantha is a second year student in the Changing Education Master's program at the University of Helsinki. Prior to starting this program, she was a special education teacher at High Tech High International, a public charter high school, in San Diego that followed a PBL curriculum (Project Based Learning) and a full inclusion model for delivery of special education services. Her interests lie in teacher mentoring and curriculum design. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, biking, and hiking, as well reading, art/crafting, spending time with her rescue dog, Nora, and perfecting her breakfast burrito recipe.

Key Words: decoloniality, art history, development education, amend



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