Titus Kaphar
1,812,606 views • 12:52

I love museums. Have you guys ever been to the Natural History Museum? In New York City?


So one of the things that I do is I take my kids to the museum. Recently I took them to the Natural History Museum. I had my two sons with me, Sabian and Dabith. And we go into the front entrance of the museum, and there's that amazing sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt out there. You guys know which one I'm talking about. Teddy Roosevelt is sitting there with one hand on the horse, bold, strong, sleeves rolled up. I don't know if he's bare-chested, but it kind of feels like it.


And on the left-hand side of him is a Native American walking. And on the right-hand side of him is an African-American walking. And as we're moving up the stairs, getting closer to the sculpture, my oldest son, who's nine, says, "Dad, how come he gets to ride, and they have to walk?"

It stopped me in my tracks. It stopped me in my tracks. There was so much history that we would have to go through to try to explain that, and that's something I try to do with them anyways. It's a question that I probably would have never really asked. But fundamentally what he was saying was, "That doesn't look fair. Dad, that doesn't look fair. And why is this thing that's so not fair sitting outside of such an amazing institution." And his question got me wondering, is there a way for us to amend our public sculptures, our national monuments? Not erase them, but is there a way to amend them?

Now, I didn't grow up going to museums. That's not my history. My mother was 15 years old when I was born. She is amazing. My father was struggling with his own things for most of my life. If you really want to know the truth, the only reason I got into art is because of a woman. There was this amazing, amazing, fantastic, beautiful, smart woman, four years older than me, and I wanted to go out with her. But she said, "You're too young and you're not thinking about your future." So I ran on down to the junior college, registered for some classes, ran on back, and basically was like, "I'm thinking about my future now."


"Can we go out?"

For the record, she's even more amazing. I married her.


So when I randomly ran down to the junior college and registered for classes, I really wasn't paying attention to what I was registering to.


So I ended up with an art history class, and I didn't know a thing about art history. But something amazing happened when I went into that class. For the first time in my academic career, my visual intelligence was required of me. For the first time. The professor would put up an image, bold strokes of blues and yellows, and say, "Who's that?" And I'd go, "That's Van Gogh. Clearly that is Van Gogh. I got this."


I got a B in that class. For me, that was amazing. In high school, let's just say I wasn't a great student. OK? In high school, my GPA was .65.


Decimal point first, six five. So me getting a B was huge, huge, absolutely huge. And because of the fact that I realized that I was able to learn things visually that I couldn't learn in other ways, this became my strategy, this became my tactic for understanding everything else. I wanted to stay in this relationship. Things were going well.

I decided, let me keep taking these art history classes. One of the last art history classes, I will not forget, I will never forget. It was one of those survey art history classes. Anybody ever have one of those survey art history classes, where they try to teach you the entire history of art in a single semester? I'm talking about cave paintings and Jackson Pollock just crunched together all in the same — It doesn't really work, but they try anyway. Well, at the beginning of the semester, I looked at the book, and in this 400-page book was about a 14-page section that was on black people in painting. Now, this was a crammed in section that had representations of black people in painting and black people who painted. It was poorly curated, let's just put it that way.


Nonetheless I was really excited about it, because in all the other classes that I had, we didn't even have that conversation. We didn't talk about it at all. So imagine my surprise when I get to class and on the day that we're supposed to go over that particular chapter, my professor announces, "We're going to skip this chapter today because we do not have time to go through it."

"Whoa, I'm sorry, hold on, professor, professor. I'm sorry. This is a really important chapter to me. Are we going to go over it at any point?"

"Titus, we don't have time for this."

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please, I really need to understand. Clearly the author thinks that this is significant. Why are we skipping over this?"

"Titus, I do not have time for this."

"OK, last question, I'm really sorry here. When can we talk, because we need to talk."


I went to her office hours. I ended up getting kicked out of her office. I went to the dean. The dean finally told me, "I can't force her to teach anything." And I knew in that moment if I wanted to understand this history, if I wanted to understand the roles of those folks who had to walk, I was probably going to have to figure that out myself. So ... above you right here on the slide is a painting by Frans Hals. This is one of the kinds of images that was in that chapter. I taught myself how to paint by going to museums and looking at images like this.

I want to show you something.

I made this. I —


I made some alterations. You'll see there are some slight differences in the painting. All this art history that I had been absorbing helped me to realize that painting is a language. There is a reason why he is the highest in the composition here. There is a reason why the painter is showing us this gold necklace here. He's trying to tell us something about the economic status of these people in these paintings. Painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important. It's coded. But sometimes, because of the compositional structure, because of compositional hierarchy, it's hard to see other things. This silk is supposed to tell us also that they have quite a bit of money. There's more written about dogs in art history than there are about this other character here. Historically speaking, in research on these kinds of paintings, I can find out more about the lace that the woman is wearing in this painting — the manufacturer of the lace — than I can about this character here, about his dreams, about his hopes, about what he wanted out of life.

I want to show you something. I don't want you to think that this is about eradication. It's not. The oil that you saw me just put inside of this paint is linseed oil. It becomes transparent over time, so eventually what's going to happen is these faces will emerge a little bit. What I'm trying to do, what I'm trying to show you, is how to shift your gaze just slightly, just momentarily, just momentarily, to ask yourself the question, why do some have to walk? What is the impact of these kinds of sculptures at museums? What is the impact of these kinds of paintings on some of our most vulnerable in society, seeing these kinds of depictions of themselves all the time? I'm not saying erase it. We can't erase this history. It's real. We have to know it. I think of it in the same way we think of —

Let me step back a second. You remember old-school cameras, where when you took a picture, you actually had to focus. Right? You'd put the camera up, and if I wanted you in focus, I would move the lens a little to the left and you would come forward. I could move the lens a little to the right, and you would go back and the folks in the background would come out. I'm just trying to do that here. I'm trying to give you that opportunity. I'm trying to answer that question that my son had. I want to make paintings, I want to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to the diversity and the advances of our present. And we can't do that by taking an eraser and getting rid of stuff. That's just not going to work. I think that we should do it in the same way the American Constitution works. When we have a situation where we want to change a law in the American Constitution, we don't erase the other one. Alongside that is an amendment, something that says, "This is where we were, but this is where we are right now." I figure if we can do that, then that will help us understand a little bit about where we're going.

Thank you.