Titus Kaphar’s rise to art-world stardom has been nothing short of meteoric. After earning his MFA at Yale University, he began painting canvases that wrestle with racism and the lack of representation of people of color in the Western art canon. One series renders mugshots of incarcerated Black men in gold leaf, partly submerged in tar based on how much time each man spent in prison. Another subdues young Black protesters in aggressive strokes of white paint, suggesting attempts to silence them. His paintings have appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice, landed him a coveted residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and earned him a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Despite his success, a void remained. “Ninety percent of what I sell doesn’t go into Black or brown homes,” Kaphar explains to his dealer in Shut Up and Paint, a 20-minute-long short film that marks the artist’s directorial debut about how the insatiable art market seeks to silence his activism. “The conversation that Black artists have been having is that our work exists in white spaces, in white people’s houses. They become separate from us, and disconnected from us, in a way that just feels not just.”
The scene follows a walkthrough of “In From a Tropical Space,” his critically acclaimed, sold-out solo exhibition at Gagosian in 2020, where he presented paintings whose haunting narratives explore mass incarceration. Each canvas depicts a forlorn Black mother with the blank silhouette of her child that Kaphar excised from the canvas, leaving only the gallery wall underneath. One painting appeared on the cover of Time’s protest issue that summer following the murder of George Floyd.
The paintings read political, but they take on a deeply personal note for Kaphar—and scores of Black Americans grieving loved ones lost to police brutality and mass incarceration. “I was thinking about my cousin who died in prison last year,” Kaphar told Artnet News. “And my other cousin who’s in prison right now. And my father, who has been in and out my whole life. So as an artist, I’m not out to make activist paintings. I’m trying to make sense of some stuff for myself, and put it on canvas.”
But the people who may resonate most with his message, Kaphar realizes, lack the means to buy his canvases—nor are many going to museums and galleries, which have long excluded Black narratives within their walls. Though his collectors are mostly white, a European dealer tells Kaphar during one of the documentary’s more gripping scenes, his work’s activist bent is discomfiting and he should instead simply focus on the work. “He said point blank, ‘shut up and paint,’” the film’s co-director, Alex Mallis, recalled at a recent Q&A. “That was very jarring.”
This may explain why Kaphar has branched into filmmaking—a medium whose message will more easily reach those who need to hear it. “If you realize, in shouting your message, that it’s not reaching the community that you want to reach, you have to find a strategy for getting that message to them as well,” he says. “That might mean changing my medium to be able to have a dialogue with folks.” He’s well on his way. Kaphar signed with Hollywood talent agency UTA after wrapping production on Shut Up and Paint, and is currently shooting his debut narrative feature film, Exhibiting Forgiveness, chronicling his struggle of balancing the art world and the community close to his heart.
Kaphar is already doing so. Struck by the needs of Dixwell, a once-thriving African-American neighborhood in a post-industrial part of New Haven, Connecticut, near Yale, he co-founded NXTHVN, a $12 million nonprofit arts incubator and fellowship to nurture rising talents. The program aims to accelerate the careers of artists of color who may otherwise be unfamiliar with the art world’s opaque machinations. (Studio management, production, and gallery relationships are all on the agenda.) Since 2019, it has welcomed seven artists and two curators annually, offering them a stipend, state-of-the-art facilities (two derelict factory buildings restored by Deborah Berke), and access to a global network of creative talent.
As Kaphar’s foray into filmmaking—and continued service to the creative community—demonstrates, the fallout from Laura Ingraham’s infamous demand that LeBron James “shut up and dribble” continues to deliver sweet rewards.