WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hanging half loose from its stretcher, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson reveals an image of a black woman behind it. It’s a provocative juxtaposition that raises a question about the relationship between the two subjects. Her hair is covered while her partially shown shoulder and leg are bare. She is brown-skinned with an indeterminable gaze. She evokes both assertion and alarm.

Titled “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” (2014), the painting by Titus Kaphar was inspired by a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson made in 1800.

“This painting is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and yet it is not,” Kaphar said. “The reason I say, ‘And yet it is not,’ is because we know from the actual history that Sally Hemings was very fair. Very, very fair. The woman who sits here is not just simply a representation of Sally Hemings, she’s more of a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.”

“This 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’s more of a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.”
— Titus Kaphar

Based in New Haven, Conn., Kaphar makes paintings in the style of Classic and Renaissance portraiture. Defined by physical manipulation, his work literally reconstructs accepted narratives. He rips the canvases from their frames, rolls them up, cuts them or white washes them with strokes of white paint, in order to surface suppressed histories, reckon with the nation’s racial past, and undo certain biographies and expose their multifaceted nature.

The artist’s depictions of prominent white men in U.S. history explore their relationships and complex interactions with African Americans and Native Americans. The Jefferson portrait hangs in a gallery alongside paintings of Andrew Jackson, Christopher Columbus, and Thaddeus Stephens (1792-1868), the congressman from Pennsylvania, who had a common law relationship with his widowed housekeeper, a “mixed-race” woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith (1815-1884).

In his portrait of Stephens, Kaphar concentrates on his eyes. The rest of his face is obscured because the canvas has been inched up to reveal a seated black female figure. A red blanket falls around her hips and she appears to have raised the canvas by pulling a red string, an act of agency lifting the veil on their connection.

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Drawing the Blinds,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Dr. Charles M. Boyd, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

KAPHAR’S PAINTINGS ARE ON VIEW in “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Dayand Titus Kaphar,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The show examines the absence of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans in historical portraiture and weighs how their invisibility has influenced our understanding of U.S. history.

“UnSeen” examines the absence of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans in historical portraiture and weighs how their invisibility has influenced our understanding of U.S. history.

The museum is marking its 50th anniversary this year with a series of special exhibitions and events examining the history of American portraiture and the challenges of representation. Unveiling the portraits of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in February was a major part of the programming.

Dating back to the nation’s founding, white men who owned land and could vote were the subjects of formal portraiture. As an art form, portraiture affirmed social standing. Few women and people of color appeared in portraits. When they did, their appearance was most often alongside the white male subject or often in the background, serving to confirm the power and status of the main sitter.

Co-organized by Asma Naeem, the museum’s curator of Prints, Drawing and Media Arts, and Taína Caragol, curator of Painting and Sculpture and Latino Art and History, “UnSeen” is the National Portrait Gallery’s first anniversary exhibition to feature work by contemporary artists.

The exhibition consists of two solo shows presented in parallel. Ken Gonzales-Day collaborated with Caragol and Naeem worked with Kaphar. After a welcome from museum’s director Kim Sajet, the artists and curators walked the press through the show on Thursday in advance of its March 23 opening.

Both artists concentrate on untold histories and reframing the American narrative, but their practices are vastly different.

 


Profiled Series: KEN GONZALES-DAY, “George Washington by Augustus Lenci, copy after Jean-Antoine Houdon, plaster, c. 1843, National Portrait Gallery,” 2014/printed 2017 (chromogenic print). | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Copyright 2017, Ken Gonzales-Day, all rights reserved

 

LOS ANGELES-BASED GONZALES-DAY mines museum archives and photographs sculptural objects most of them rarely, if ever, displayed publicly. His work deconstructs racial hierarchies, considers beauty ideals, and evaluates how artists have treated and interpreted white bodies and bodies of color. He embarked on this aspect of his practice in 2008 during a residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Over the past decade, he said he has been given free reign to explore the collections of about 20 museums around the world.

In “UnSeen,” one gallery focuses on busts and life masks found in Washington, D.C., museums. Gonzales-Day said he wanted show how “our” country presents its people in the nation’s capital. “13 Plasters: Presidents, Men of Art and Science, and Military Men at the National Portrait Gallery” is a large-scale tableaux image of casts of figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, and George Washington—all white men, no women or people of color. Individual images of Native American busts from the National Museum of Natural History hang on the opposite wall.

The busts were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the cooperation of living Native Americans under the guidance of Smithsonian anthropologists, either in the course of field research or through meetings with Native American delegates visiting Washington to negotiate land rights and sign treaties.

“By juxtaposing these two types of sculptures and these individuals, Ken is asking us to consider them on equal ground as integral people to American history,” Caragol said. Then she pointed out one of the busts, “Gives to the Poor, Pawnee Scout Battalion, United States Army” (1887), and said until recently the subject had been identified with the wrong name.

“We’ve been working together for four years on this project and this is a lot of thinking about not just what is missing, but who is missing. I’ve looked up the genealogies of all of these individuals going back as far as I could. It’s not only about absence or erasure, this is really about trying to fill in some gaps,” said Gonzales-Day.

“The sculpture was unidentified on a shelf and now he has his name back (“Gives to the Poor”). …It’s been misidentified for 100 years. You are the first people to know his real name outside the community and it’s only because Taína and I worked together, mostly Taína on this one, to help give that name back. There are stakes here that are very real. She was just emailing descendants.”

“We’ve been working together for four years on this project and this is a lot of thinking about not just what is missing, but who is missing. …It’s not only about absence or erasure but this is really about trying to fill in some gaps.” — Ken Gonzales-Day


Profiled Series: KEN GONZALES-DAY, “Gives to the Poor, Pawnee Scout Battalion, United States Army by unidentified artist, plaster, 1887; National Museum of Natural History,” 2014/printed 2017 (archival ink on rag paper). | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Copyright 2017, Ken Gonzales-Day, all rights reserved

 

HIS GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH extends to the history of lynching. Generally from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, blacks in the South were the targets of lynchings at the hands of whites. Lesser known is the history of other races victimized by lynching.

Historically, the NAACP kept track of lynchings, categorizing victims in two distinct groups—black or white. The vast majority were black and, according to Gonzales-Day, those recorded as white, in most cases were actually Latino American, Native American, or Asian American.

In the exhibition, he examines the gamut, emphasizing the violent incidents that took place in the Western United States. He also notes prior research that uncovered documentation of 547 Mexicans killed by lynching between 1848 and 1928.

The artist’s “Erased Lynchings” series is based on archival images of lynchings that occurred between 1850 to 1942. Modest-sized gatherings and mob scenes near trees and hanging scaffolds in places like Canon City Colo., Delphi, Ind., Tampa, Fla., Atlanta, Ga., and Downieville, Calif., are shown in the historic photographs. The captions reference “Executing Bandits in Mexico” and describe some victims as “Unidentified African American.”

Gonzales-Day presents 21 images previously circulated as postcards and souvenirs in a gallery-style installation. Using digital editing, he has removed the victims from the images, in order to to avoid re-victimizing them and concentrate on the people gathered to witness their violent deaths. The wall text describes the bystanders as “men in suits, children looking perplexed, and soldiers smiling broadly.”

The artist’s “Erased Lynchings” series is based on archival images of lynchings that occurred between 1850 to 1942. Mob scenes near trees and hanging scaffolds are shown in the historic photographs. The wall text describes the bystanders as “men in suits, children looking perplexed, and soldiers smiling broadly.”


Erased Lynching Series: KEN GONZALES-DAY, “Disguised Bandit, Unknown Victim, c. 1915,” 2006/printed 2018 (archival ink on rag paper). | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Copyright 2017, Ken Gonzales-Day, all rights reserved

 

ACROSS THE CORRIDOR, Kaphar is showing 17 paintings and one sculpture. “UnSeen” is the largest presentation of his work to date. Similar to Gonzales-Day, his output is the result of an inordinate amount of time spent in museums. Kaphar has an affinity for history and art history and obsessively studied early portraiture to enhance his academic training (he has an MFA from Yale) and become a better painter. But the exercise was not without conflict, which is evident in his work.

Kaphar addresses the marginalization and absence of African Americans in portraiture by foregrounding them and introducing interventions that speak to the complications of American history. A portrait of a white woman and black man in formal dress titled “Civil Union,” acknowledges interracial unions dating back centuries. “The Fight for Remembrance II,” an image of a black Union soldier in uniform, responds to the little-told contributions of African Americans in the Civil War. Kaphar applied bold slashes of white paint to both of these paintings, partially obscuring the images to emphasize the historic erasure of the narratives.

(He used the same white-washing technique in 2014 when he depicted a contemporary moment for Time magazine—the protestors in Ferguson, Mo., who took a stand against the police killing of Mike Brown.)

A pair of paintings imagines how Billy Lee (1750–1828), George Washington’s valet, and Ona Judge (c. 1773–1848), who served as a personal attendant to Martha Washington, would appear if they had the opportunity to sit for formal portraits. The fine silk clothing worn by the enslaved figures contrasts with the black tar impasto covering their faces, a gesture Kaphar employed to speak to the absence of their images in the American canon and his inability, therefore, to depict them accurately.

His “Columbus Day Painting” subverts the hero narrative of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer and colonizer. Inspired by John Vanderlyn’s 1846 painting, “Landing of Columbus,” Kaphar shrouds Columbus and his crew in raw canvas, shifting the viewer’s focus to the indigenous people easily overlooked in the background, on the margins.

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Columbus Day Painting,” 2014 (oil and mixed media on canvas). | Collection of Dr. Robert B. Feldman, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

“I at once see the fact that these images support Colonialist ideas and at the same time, as a maker, as a person interested in material, as a person interested in history, I still really love them,” Kaphar said. “So the works themselves exist in that place of conflict. It’s not simply a critique of the past, in that way. It’s a wrestling, trying to come to an understanding within myself.”

“I at once see the fact that these images support Colonialist ideas and at the same time, as a maker, as a person interested in material, as a person interested in history, I still really love them. So the works themselves exist in that place of conflict.” — Titus Kaphar

THE SMITHSONIAN, America’s foremost public, cultural institution, ranks among major organizations such as National Geographic, the New York Times, and universities that benefitted from slavery, that are beginning to reconcile the narrow narrative they have been promoting for generations with the more complex truth of the nation’s founding, its shameful history with race, and the diverse figures who contributed to its progress. Introducing Kaphar’s work, Naeem spoke to the revolutionary symbolism of the images presented in “UnSeen.”

“We’re asking some tough questions,” she said. “We’re asking questions that may have not been asked before and we are asking questions about whose history is told. Who is shown on our walls? Who has been erased from our histories and hasn’t been shown and how can those exclusions lead to different interpretations of history?” CT

 

“UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2018-Jan. 6, 2019.

 

CORRECTION (03/28/18): This story was updated to cite the correct source regarding the lynching of 547 Mexicans. The information does not come from the research of Ken Gonzales-Day, but prior findings documented by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb and published in their book “Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928.”

 

TOP IMAGE: TITUS KAPHAR, “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Guillermo Nicolas and Jim Foster, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

READ MORE about Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day on their websites

 

BOOKSHELF
“Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (a John Hope Franklin Center Book)” documents Ken Gonzales-Day’s lynching research. Published by the Wallis Annenberg Photography Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Profiled (LACMA PAC Prize, 2011),” explores his work mining museum collections to analyze depictions of race in sculptural objects dating from the 18th to 20th century.

 


From left, TITUS KAPHAR, “Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar,” 2016 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City, Missouri, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; and TITUS KAPHAR, “Ona Judge: Portrait in Tar,” 2016 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Ellen and Steve Susman, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 


TITUS KAPHAR, “Disordered Suspension,” 2011 (oil on cut canvas). | Private Collection, Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, NY, © Titus Kaphar. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 


KEN GONZALES-DAY, Detail of “13 Plasters: Presidents, Men of Art and Science, and Military Men at the National Portrait Gallery (Row 3),” 2014/printed 2017 (Chromogenic print). | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus, Los Angeles

 


Profiled Series: KEN GONZALES-DAY, “Untitled: Bust of an African Woman by Henry Weeks, marble, 1859. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and Bust of Mm. Adélaïde Julie Mirleau de Newville, née Garnier d’Isle by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, marble, 1750s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles,” 2009/printed 2017 (archival ink on rag paper). | Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Copyright 2017, Ken Gonzales-Day, all rights reserved

 
SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Help sustain it by making a donation.

You can also support Culture Type when you shop on Amazon. To help offset a small portion of the countless hours and expense required to research, report, write and produce the content on this website, Culture Type participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate program designed to help sites earn commissions by linking to amazon.com. When you make ANY merchandise purchase from Amazon, and the many independent vendors, small businesses, and booksellers that partner with Amazon, via a link from this site, Culture Type receives a minute percentage of its price. Your support is much appreciated.