A new temporary exhibit at Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum features the work of painter and sculptor Titus Kaphar. Kaphar is known for his art that encourages activism, transformation and freedom — and challenges the world to achieve self-liberation in new and self-affirming ways.
The exhibit, entitled “Knockout,” frames Kaphar’s magical and mysterious artwork in the context of boxing — more specifically, famed 20th century boxer Muhammad Ali. Just as Ali was more than a prize fighting boxer, Kaphar is more than a painter. Ali, a quintessential American cultural icon, had bedrock convictions about religious faith and race. Like Ali, Kaphar has deeply felt convictions. His paintings and sculpture deliver that same kind of Ali one-two punch that has made global audiences pay attention.
“Kaphar’s art almost defies description,” said Dr. Jontyle Robinson, The Legacy Museum’s curator. “He is a shaman and polymath. His modes and media include prints, paintings, collages and sculptures. He’s a man of many seasons.”
His work interacts with art history by appropriating its styles and mediums. He cuts, bends, sculpts and mixes historic painting, creating new works between fiction and historic sampling. It combines aspects of the downtrodden with majestic elements that cannot be put down — conjuring Maya Angelou’s inspirational phrase, “and still I rise,” according to Robinson.
The subjects of Kaphar’s work focus on individuals victimized by a prejudiced society and by the criminal justice system. In some works, he uses black tar that signifies the stereotyped imagery that paints us with one brush and stifles the truth of black experiences. In other paintings, his figures are shredded or covered with pale layers of linseed oil to show how false representations of black people have covered reality.
“Kaphar encourages us to venture into ourselves and reconsider the representation of black figures in painting,” Robinson explained. “Confronting themes that are critical to our survival requires plunging into hurtful places. Kaphar pokes and prods us through his art to illuminate important ideas for viewers to consider and comprehend.”
The exhibit includes six pieces, three of which are large-format pieces, that address issues of police brutality and mass incarceration. It also will include photography showing the artist connecting with HBCU students and mentors as part of his collaboration with the HBCU Alliance of Museums and Galleries. The organization, which was founded at Tuskegee University, seeks to increase diversity in the cultural heritage sector, focusing on preservation and conservation, through its collaborations with educational institutions, museums and artists.
“Knockout” also connects with “The United States Public Health Service Untreated Syphilis Study in the Negro Male in Macon County from 1932-1972” permanent exhibition simultaneously on view at The Legacy Museum. “Knockout” provides a critical and creative framework to understand the story of the 599 African American men and their families who were part of the longest non-therapeutic study in American medical history. Together, these exhibitions demonstrate the lack of regard for black life in America.
“Demonstrating the need for education, flexibility, strength and resilience to survive in America, ‘Knockout’ shouts, ‘We matter! TKO!’,” Robinson concluded.
Kaphar’s work has been included in exhibitions at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem; Washington’s Seattle Art Museum; and The Legacy Museum, recently founded in Montgomery, Alabama. His art is also in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 2014, “Time” magazine commissioned Kaphar to create an artwork in response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Kalamazoo, Michigan, native earned a BFA from San Jose State University and an MFA from the Yale School of Art — and more recently, a 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He currently lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Knockout,” funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, will be on view at The Legacy Museum through March 30, 2020. It — along with the museum’s permanent exhibits, “The Patient, The Project, The Partnership: The Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa cells at Tuskegee University” and “The United States Public Health Service Untreated Syphilis Study in the Negro Male, 1932-1972” — can be viewed during its operating hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
To learn more about the Legacy Museum, visit www.tuskegee.edu/legacymuseum.
By: Tuskegge University