American Artist Titus Kaphar Explores Race, Identity & Memory in “The Vesper Project”
Artwork: Titus Kaphar (American, b. 1976). The Vesper Project, 2012 (Vesper Detail). Mixed media, Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Burger Collection, Hong Kong and Friedman Benda, New York.
Fact and fiction seamlessly merge in Titus Kaphar: The Vesper Project, currently on view at the Lowe Museum of Art at the University of Miami, now through December 23, 2016—reminding us of the ways in which mythology shapes our sense of the past, present, and future. For this exhibition Kaphar (b. 1967) has draws upon the Vespers, a fictional family living in nineteenth-century New England who “passed” as white despite the fact that their mixed-race heritage designated them black in the eyes of the law.
The story begins when a man named Benjamin Vesper experienced a psychotic break while looking at a painting by Kaphar on view at the Yale art Gallery and attacked one of the figures in the painting. He was admitted to the Connecticut Valley Hospital, where began to reveal details about himself and his family’s troubled history to both his therapist and, in private correspondence with Kaphar.
From what has been gathered, the story goes: Captain Abram Vesper, a former Brazilian slave became a navigator, merchant, and eventual owner of a small shipping company that brought him success in Europe and Reconstruction-era America. After losing his only son at war, Vesper turned to his three fair-skinned daughters to maintain his legacy.
His youngest daughter came of age in time to marry the son of a prominent shipping magnate—but before their engagement is finalized, she becomes pregnant and the wedding is off. Then, as if this were not bad enough, the secret of their African lineage is revealed and their family name is destroyed.
It is here that Kaphar begins, with what remains, in an installation so powerful it will take your breath away. Composed of the vestiges of a nineteenth-century New England house that has been carefully wallpapered with newspapers from the era addressing critical race-based issues of the time, the Vespers home stands at the center of the show, surrounded by the decaying luxuries of what was once a family of privilege, aspiration, and wealth. But, with the ravages of time, what now exists is a crumbling picture of decay that speaks to the very issue of systemic racism itself.
Truth flatters and coddles none, thus the compulsion to revise and whitewash the facts in order to create a narrative that mythologizes illusions at the expense of reality. But, invariably, the truth will always out for, as the Vespers came to discover too late. Take the painting of one of the Vesper daughters that stands tall and proud, but for the bottom half of her face which has fallen into disrepair and vanished. What remains are her eyes, giving a window into the soul, offering a metaphor for a history that has been silenced and cannot speak.
It was these paintings that captured the eye of Dr. Jill Deupi, Beaux Arts Director and Chief Curator of the Lowe Art Museum, who first met Kaphar when she was living in Connecticut. Trained in the eighteenth-century paintings of Naples, Dr. Deupi has an eye for the academic style of painting that fell out of vogue in the twentieth-century.
“The eighteenth century began with 10 state-run academies and there were 100 when it closed in Western Europe. It was the mark of an enlightened ruler to have an academy, and it gave artists access to the state-run projects of the monarchy and papacy. But artists who were not in the academy were out of the loop. The rise of nineteenth-century Romantics who were not admitted and did not have access to the salons began when they started their own movement and went out on their own.”
From this movement, the roots of modern and contemporary art were born, and the rules of the academy fell by the wayside as art schools developed different practices. Kaphar’s return to the strictures of academic painting is one that embraces it to a very different end: to subvert the very hierarchy it imposes, using it as a comment on its self. “It is subversion with a purpose,” Dr. Deupi observes.
Subverting our assumptions about the history of Western art is just one of the many ways in which Kaphar uses The Vesper Project to reframe the mythological past, helping to undo centuries of indoctrination that the Enlightenment was just that, in fact. Art can be a tool of history, as well as propaganda, used to codify ideologies based in logical fallacies and pathological beliefs, through the non-verbal channels of aesthetic pleasure and pain.
By creating The Vesper Project, Kaphar invites us into the past, into the space where fact, fiction, and history coalesce, converge, and co-exist. The sense of “reality” is palpable, reminding us to look beyond the surface of things and find its true essence and soul.
Dr. Deupi observes, “One of the great benefits of an art museum is self-directed learning. Visitors and explore and discover (with their own personal agenda) very powerful topics of cultural and racial identity that hit a sensitive nerve in our country today. It invites a deeper dialogue with the self and society, if they desire it.”
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.