REPRESENTING THE SORROW of generations, Titus Kaphar painted a black mother for the cover of Time magazine. Her eyes are closed in anguish. She holds her young son, but he is not there. The artist has cut the child from the canvas. All that remains is an empty silhouette.

“In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies,” Kaphar says.

 


Time Magazine, June 15, 2020. TITUS KAPHAR, “Analogous Colors” (2020) by Titus Kaphar. | © Titus Kaphar

 

George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police May 25, when he was held to the ground and an officer pressed his knee down on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Floyd, 46, pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and called out to his mother, who died two years earlier on May 30, 2018, nearly the same day her son’s life was cut short. “Mamma!” he said, resigned. “Mamma! I’m through.”

The public at-large is decrying the latest sucession of killings. In the wake of the police killing of Floyd, the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga., by armed white men, widespread public demonstrations against police brutality and racial violence sprouted up in cities across the nation and the world over the past week. Declaring black lives matter, legions of protestors are calling for police prosecution, police reform, and racist justice.

In response, to document and visualize the moment, Time commissioned Kaphar to make a painting for its June 15 cover. For the first time, the magazine has included names in the signature red border that frames the cover. There are 35. Time describes them as “black men and women whose deaths, in many cases by police, were the result of systemic racism and helped fuel the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.” The list of “men and women” includes a little boy, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland police Nov. 22, 2014.

An exceptional artist, Kaphar also has a remarkable facility for expressing himself with words. He wrote a poem to accompany the cover image. He wrote in part:

 
    In her expression, I see the Black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies.

    As I listlessly wade through another cycle of violence against Black people,

    I paint a Black mother…

    eyes closed,

    furrowed brow,

    holding the contour of her loss

     

    Is this what it means for us?

    Are black and loss

    analogous colors in America?

 


In 2020, Titus Kaphar in his New Haven, Conn., studio, shown with his painting “The Aftermath” (2020). | Artwork © Titus Kaphar. Photo by John Lucas

 

PHYSICAL INTERVENTION by cutting and manipulating his canvases is a standard part of Kaphar’s approach to his work. Throughout most of his career, he has made paintings in the style of Classic and Renaissance portraiture and used the conceit to surface suppressed histories and reconstruct accepted narratives.

Kaphar rips canvases from their frames, cuts them, covers them in tar, rolls them up, or white washes them with strokes of white paint, in order to symbolize violence or erasure and reckon with the nation’s racist past.

The first occasion Time magazine commissioned Kaphar to make a painting was months after the Aug. 9, 2014, police killing of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo. The magazine was considering selections for the annual Person of the Year cover and asked him to portray the “Ferguson Protestors.”

The artist depicted young black men with their hands raised in the air and then added violent white slashes of paint over much of the image, indicating the loss of black lives, the silencing of the black community and the public at-large, and the seemingly impenetrable force of white supremacy and unjust policing and governance.

Ultimately, the Ebola Fighters were named Person of the Year in December 2014. Another pandemic was afoot at the time and bested the protestors.

Six years later in 2020, while there was no official competition for the cover subject, the fight against police killing and the clarion call that black lives matter has trumped the months-long coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic which has been far worse, widespread, and deadly in the United States when compared with Ebola.

 

Titus Kaphar - ferguson-protesters
TITUS KAPHAR, “Yet Another Fight for Remembrance,” 2014 (oil on canvas). | © Titus Kaphar for Time magazine

 

KAPHAR IS BASED in New Haven, Conn., where he lives, works, and co-founded NXTHVN, a nonprofit that supports the next generation of arts professionals. Kaphar is giving back by sharing what he has learned in his career and acknowledging what he views as his responsibility to younger artists. A multidisciplinary arts incubator, NXTHVN offers fellowships and apprenticeships designed to mentor and train emerging artists and curators.

Born in Kalamazoo, Mich., Kaphar is 44. He earned a BFA from San Jose State University (2001) and an MFA from Yale University (2006). He was an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2006-07.

In 2018, Kaphar was named a MacArthur “genius” fellow. Also that year, his work was featured in “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibition showcased 17 paintings and one sculpture by Kaphar and was the largest presentation of his work to date. His work has been the focus of many other exhibitions and is represented in public and private collections.

After being represented by Jack Shainman Gallery since 2015, he joined Gagosian Gallery in April. The arrangement with Gagosian includes “substantive support” for NXTHVN.

The artist has recently taken his work in a new direction, transitioning away from historic images and exploring more contemporary ones, similar to his Time magazine cover portrait. In these scenes, he’s chosen saturated tropical colors to paint ordinary moments—mothers braiding hair or pushing baby strollers, for example—that are punctuated by the loss of children, who are cut out of the canvas and absent from image.

With galleries temporarily closed due to COVID-19, they have been showcasing the work of their artists in online viewing rooms and web features. From May 6-12, Gagosian spotlighted Kaphar’s work and during that time reported it had sold one of his paintings. Made available for sale online for 48 hours only, “Braiding possibility” 2020, was priced at $300,000. By contrast, the painting he made for Time is not for sale.

 
    I

    can not

    sell

    you

    this

    painting.

 

Kaphar began his poem with the above pronouncement, and continued, later stating he wants the black mother’s story to be told. He wants her to be seen.

 
    This Black mother understands the fire.

    Black mothers

    understand despair.

    I can change NOTHING in this world,

    but in paint,

    I can realize her….

    This brings me solace…

    not hope,

    but solace.

 

Kaphar’s Time cover was released yesterday, the same day Floyd was mourned and remembered in a nationally televised memorial service at North Central University in Minneapolis, the first of a few services planned to celebrate his life.

“I have given up trying to describe the feeling of knowing that I can not be safe in the country of my birth,” Kaphar told Time. “How do I explain to my children that the very system set up to protect others could be a threat to our existence? How do I shield them from the psychological impact of knowing that for the rest of our lives we will likely be seen as a threat?” CT

 

FIND MORE about Titus Kaphar on his website

FIND MORE about Titus Kaphar’s series addressing criminal justice issues here and here

 

BOOKSHELF
“Fired Up! Ready to Go! Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz” documents the life and art collections of philanthopist Peggy Cooper Cafrtiz. The volume includes commentary from several artists the collector supported including Titus Kaphar. When he first started thinking about the kinds of programs and opportunities realized at NXTHVN, Kaphar reached out to Cafritz. In the book he says, “When I first started thinking about the project, it began with a call to Peggy. She has made me very aware of my responsibility to others, especially younger artists. My work in New Haven has absolutely been influenced by her work. She leads by example.”

 

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