Artist’s shredding technique makes deep observations on history


Titus Kaphar’s work largely delves into history, but he does not consider himself a historian.

Kaphar, an artist born and raised in Kalamazoo, uses a unique shredding technique on his paintings and the result offers deep commentary on the subject.

Photo of Titus Kaphar’s “Flay (James Madison)”
Titus Kaphar’s “Flay (James Madison)” is the centerpiece of “Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism” at the U-M Museum of Art. (Courtesy of Maruani Mercer and Titus Kaphar)

His painting “Flay (James Madison)” showcases his shredding technique, and the work is the centerpiece of a “Unsettling Histories: Legacies of Slavery and Colonialism,” U-M Museum of Art’s reinstallation of its gallery of 18th and 19th century European and American art.

Kaphar is scheduled to appear from 5:30-7 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Michigan Theater for a Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series event as part of the 2023 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.

Kaphar’s painting of Madison, the nation’s fourth president, is 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide and looks like it has been put through a shredder, with pieces of the canvas pulled away in strips, revealing the bare wall behind. The intent is to spotlight “unspoken truths” on history and how that history has been distorted through retelling.

“I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction is fiction — it’s simply a question of to what degree,” Kaphar said. “As much as we try to speak to the facts of a historical incident, we often alter those facts, sometimes drastically, through the retelling itself.

“I cut, crumple, shroud, shred, stitch, tar, twist, bind, erase, break, tear and turn the paintings and sculptures I create, reconfiguring them into works that nod to hidden narratives and begin to reveal unspoken truths about the nature of history.”

Kaphar is based in Connecticut and helped establish NXTHVN, a national arts model that aims to empower emerging artists and curators of color through education and access.

“NXTHVN is an opportunity for me to go back in time to when I was having conversations with faculty (at Yale),” he said. “I’m able not only to see these young artists’ work from a formal perspective, but to get into the weeds of its social, political and emotional impact as well.”

Kaphar said he hopes attendees of his appearance at the Michigan Theater leave with an understanding that monuments or historical portraits are not concrete.

“It shouldn’t be a period at the end of the sentence, it should be many, many, many commas,” he said.

“George Washington was an important historic figure. George Washington enslaved people. Thomas Jefferson was an articulate, poetic, amazing individual. Thomas Jefferson stole liberty from hundreds and hundreds of people.


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