Titus Kaphar Leaves a Lasting Impression on His Visit to UVA
Sometimes in art, as in life, timing is everything. That is one of the lessons Director of Studio Art Bill Wylie learned when artist Titus Kaphar visited Grounds recently for a fascinating two-day residency that brought departments across UVA and members of the Charlottesville community together to explore the artist’s unique combination of history, representation, race, and memory in his work. Wylie had first become acquainted with Kaphar’s work in the summer of 2017, just following the tragic events of August 11thand 12thin Charlottesville. Coincidentally, around the same time, one of Wylie’s former students wrote to him to say that her neighbor was Titus Kaphar, and she thought he would be a great speaker to invite to UVA. As Wylie was on leave at that time, the process of bringing him to UVA would need to wait for more than a year, but he reached out to make contact. Between the initial communication with Kaphar and the date of the residency, the artist joined an exclusive club when he received a MacArthur Genius Grant.
His calendar quickly filled up with speaking invitations from across the country. “We were lucky to have gotten our invitation in early, or it might not have worked out,” Wylie said. Even so, getting an artist of this caliber was not in the departmental budget, he added, and it was only thanks to the additional support of Jody Kielbasa and the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts that Kaphar’s visit happened. The second bit of timing came from the fact that the amount of space between the invitation and the actual residency allowed for some important perspective, and perhaps different conversations that might have been had in their immediate aftermath. “The Studio Art Department was committed to addressing the issues that surfaced after the white supremacy rallies,” Wylie said. “The University was doing its best, but Studio wanted to specifically involve art and artists in the conversation. In a way, the year that had gone by perhaps allowed for a more thoughtful discussion around how art can help us address topics of inequality and representation. Titus turned out to be the perfect person. In his work, he exposes how all representations, no matter how personal or grandiose, are always fictional, imperfect, and capable of being remade.
Additionally, his recent commissions have addressed the ongoing debate about public monuments, which we are still dealing with here in Charlottesville.” Students, Wylie said, were drawn to Kaphar’s ability to make work that is both personal and political. “He told his own story about struggling as a student and coming to the realization that the way he learned was visual, through images, and finding art as a way to be able to communicate his experiences, then figuring out how the personal can also be political. He ties historical realities to contemporary crises of social justice and gathers together the combined powers of art and history to effect social change. For him, first and foremost, it’s about how he can make the best art, and how to project that onto a larger political and cultural stage.”