Profile: Titus Kaphar (1976-)

Titus Kaphar is an American painter whose work reconfigures and regenerates art history to include the African-American subject.



Titus Kaphar was born in 1976 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His first introduction to art was in a junior college art history course, and he taught himself to paint by visiting museums. He received his BFA from San Jose State University in 2001 and his MFA from Yale University. His work is often multidimensional and sculptural, with canvases slashed and dangling off the frame, or hanging over another painting. One such example is his portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted in the Neoclassical style, which he attached to the corner of a nude Sally Hemings’ portrait frame. The juxtaposition of the fully clothed Jefferson with Hemmings’ nudity reinforces the unfair power dynamic between the two, and revises Jefferson’s public image to include his sexual relationship with his much younger slave.

The Vesper Project

The Vesper Project is one of Kaphar’s most immersive installations. It concerns a fictional African-American family in the 19th century that passes for white. Kaphar created an installation where visitors would walk through a 19th-century house, uncertain about what was real and what was remembrance. The project was inspired by Kaphar’s attempt to paint a portrait of his aunt, only to realize that parts of his memories of her were fictive. He spoke about the experience while promoting his show: “It occurred to me that, for some reason, my brain had decided to insert her into periods in my life when I needed extra support. That left me reeling; it left me frightened. It made me feel as if I couldn’t trust my own memory. I felt like I was losing my mind.” The Vesper Project was also a collaboration with a visitor to the Yale Art Gallery, where one of Kaphar’s paintings was displayed. The visitor, Benjamin Vesper, experienced a mental breakdown during his visit and punched one of Kaphar’s paintings. During Vesper’s subsequent institutionalization,  Kaphar and Vesper began a correspondence. The two exchanged letters for some time, writing about family and mental instability. Vesper broke out of the hospital and visited a 19th-century house, believing it was his family’s home. Kaphar intended to create a physical space for Vesper to return and face his memories, and this became the foundation of The Vesper Project. The rooms contain fragments of memories, specters, and paintings. These rooms are able to be walked through and experienced.

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