Upon a quick glance, the newest addition to the Colonial Gallery at the New BritainMuseum of American Art has left some visitors panic-stricken – an understandable reaction considering the fact that the painting has two large holes cut out of it. But do not worry, the NBMAA has not been vandalized, in fact, the holes are meant to be there. The work, Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman, was recently commissioned by the Museum from New Haven artist Titus Kaphar as part of an new project of pairing contemporary art with older works from the permanent collection. The purpose of this project, Appropriation and Inspiration, is to highlight the ways in which historical awareness has shaped the practice of many contemporary artists. Appropriation and Inspiration is not yet a full-fledged exhibition, but rather a budding initiative that will develop into a museum-wide installation in the near future.
Titus Kaphar uses art to confront history. Sometimes, he also stages interventions. Such is the case in Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman. The painting is Kaphar’s response to Gentleman with Negro Attendant, a portrait by Ralph Earl from ca. 1785-88. (The two paintings hang side by side in the Colonial Gallery.) Earl’s portrait depicts a large, well-dressed white man waited on by a young black boy. This kind of portrait – where a servant is portrayed only as a sign of the wealth of his master – was common in Colonial America. As Kaphar elaborates, “In the original painting, Gentleman with Negro Attendant the black child is stripped of all identity. He has no name, grotesquely articulated features and is bereft of human dignity. In Jaavon and the Unknown Gentleman the black figure is replaced with a living and particular child – my young neighbor.” In repainting Earl’s original work, Kaphar returns specificity to the figure of the black boy. The “gentleman”, however, becomes “unknown”, as Kaphar cuts holes in the canvas where the head and hands of the “gentleman” were once rendered. By changing the original title, Kaphar further shifts the underlying power structure in Earl’s portrait.
Through his “edits” of a colonial portrait, Kaphar offers commentary on the historical past. As the artist explains, “Much of black history recorded in Western art is summarized visually by three roles: enslaved, in servitude, or impoverished. But beyond this limited social order lies a people of dignity and strength, whose survival is nothing less than miraculous. Within the context of 19th-century paintings most black characters play, at best, secondary roles in the composition. The implication of hierarchy through compositional positioning (that is, figures in the composition) is a fundamental theme explored in this piece.”
Kaphar has described the essence of his work as consisting of “dissecting the history of art, picking each aspect of it since the beginning of time and discovering what is hidden behind it.” This process of dissection has both conceptual and physical implications. Kaphar begins by painting in a traditional Academic style, and then takes the finished work and radically modifies it using a range of materials and methods. In one series, he experimented with tar and wax, in another, he crumpled and shred his paintings to near abstraction.
Kaphar’s work brings to mind other contemporary artists who focus their practice on unearthing the various manifestations of sexism, racism, and other social issues in the history of visual culture. Artist-curator Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was a ground-breaking exhibition that took place at the Maryland Historical Society in 1993. Wilson took paintings, sculptures and historical objects from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection and displayed them in new juxtapositions to ask questions about the way museums present the history of Native Americans and African Americans. In one installation, several paintings similar to Earl’s Gentleman with Negro Attendant were paired with an audio recording asking, “Am I your brother? Am I your friend?”
By exhibiting the works of artists like Titus Kaphar through the Appropriation and Inspiration project, the NBMAA is excited about its role not only as a museum that presents history, but also one that creates opportunities for actively questioning history from a contemporary perspective. Be sure to see both Earl’s portrait and Kaphar’s recent interpretation of it in person during your next visit and share your thoughts!
What do you think of this new project? Which of your NBMAA favorites do you want to see reinterpreted? What do you think of contemporary artists looking to the past for inspiration?