The Jerome Project and the Faces of Mass Incarceration

Throughout Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the black body is an endangered commodity. Its owners continually risk being deprived of control over their bodies by police violence and societal power dynamics, reflecting how white privilege is built on the active subjugation of black bodies. Many white Americans  “accept this as the cost of doing business,” Coates writes, “accept our bodies as currency,” whether in the form of slavery one-hundred and fifty years ago, Jim Crow fifty years ago, or mass incarceration and the criminalization of the black body today, where “I could have you arrested” is code for “I could take your body.” [1]

Benveolence
Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence (The Huffington Post)

Last year, this idea of mass incarceration and its racial motivators was the subject of an exhibition at the Studio Museum: The Jerome Project, which ran from November 13, 2014 to March 8, 2015, and was one of the first solo exhibitions for the artist Titus Kaphar. [2] Much of Kaphar’s work calls attention to hidden ruptures in history, exploring racism, inequality and sexism through a destructive and physical manipulation of the canvas to disrupt traditional narratives. [3] This more contemporary exhibit on mass incarceration, then, was in some ways a departure for Kaphar, but one that connected directly the Studio Museum’s mission as “a site for the dynamic exchange of ideas about art and society.” It also reflected the work of curator Naima J. Keith around African-American contemporary art and issues of black identity. [4]

More importantly, however, The Jerome Project was a personal piece. In January 2011, while searching for the prison records of his estranged father Jerome, Kaphar came across the records of ninety-nine African-American men who shared his father’s first and last name. [5] Struck by these records, Kaphar decided to explore the overrepresentation of African-Americans in prison through the lens of this common black name, Jerome. From these men’s mugshots, he created a series of small, oil portraits, which he then submerged in tar to communicate the mark prison left on them. [6]

Jerome II
Jerome II, 2014, Titus Kaphar (The Huffington Post) Kaphar said in an interview that the gold leaf portraits were meant to evoke Christian devotional paintings, contrasting the decided un-saintliness of their deeds with the need for Christian forgiveness, something the criminal justice system sorely lacks.

Kaphar originally intended for the tar to represent the percentage of these men’s lives lost to prison, but determined this approach failed to capture how the “tarnish” of prison followed these men even after they were released. [7] Instead, Kaphar submerged these portraits up to the subjects’ mouths to symbolize how incarceration “silences” these men in and outside prison by stripping them of their rights and placing them outside society and most Americans’ concerns. Within the racialized context of the criminal justice system, these men are seen by society not as people or names, but mere reiterations within a larger mass criminalization of the black body, adding urgency to Coates’ question “How do I live free in this black body?” [8]

At the same time Kaphar’s exhibit reflected this reality, it looked to use these men and the black body to counteract this stigma. Seeing these men with their mouths forcibly covered but their eyes visible creates an increased focus on the individual features of the face still visible. And as a result, visitors are forced to reckon with mass incarceration not as distant or anonymous, but as a system composed of individuals being suppressed. By presenting these men and their faces as unique, Kaphar did not look to exonerate their actions, but restore to them a piece of identity while calling attention to the failure of the criminal justice system to do so.

The Jerome Project took on a new significance in 2014 after the events in Ferguson, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and a new focus on police abuse. With the exhibit already scheduled to have opened at the Studio Museum, Kaphar and curator Naima Keith sought to use it as a forum to create dialogue around these issues and integrate mass incarceration into the larger discussion. They did this through a number of programs, including reading groups, a K-12 workshop on the exhibit’s themes, and an art-making workshop that looked to “celebrate the black, male body” in portraiture to counter its racial stigmatization. [9]

Studio Salon
Titus Kaphar (right) and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Studio Salon forum at Studio Museum, February 8, 2015. (Nico Wheadon, Studio Museum)

One significant program was a February 2015 forum at the Studio Museum where Kaphar discussed how working on The Jerome Project, and the violation of his own body when he was stop-and-frisked by New York police in 2014, spurred him to investigate the criminal justice system further. Through policies such as risk assessment and mandatory minimums, Kaphar came to see the criminalization of the black body was not just a perception, but something built into the law to invalidate African-American’s individual circumstances. [10] Kaphar argued this legal reality made his exhibit all the more necessary, and he hoped it would spur discussion around these issues. [11]

The Jerome Project remains unfinished for Kaphar, as it has grown into a second exhibit and has led Kaphar to begin an oral history project to explore these men’s stories. Through this, Kaphar has remained struck by how exploring his past became a larger statement: “Because of the personal nature of the Jerome Project, I’ve been dealing with this body of work most of my life.” [12] Kaphar’s work, like Coates’, shows how the unresolved past can force a confrontation with the unresolved present as the legacies of racism, inequality, and threats to one’s body continue.

Kaphar TIME
After the success of The Jerome Project, Kaphar was commissioned by TIME magazine to paint a portrait of the Ferguson protesters for their 2014 retrospective issue. (Culturetype.com)

Notes:

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 95, 131.

[2] The Studio Museum, “Titus Kaphar: The Jerome Project,” Past Exhibitions, http://www.studiomuseum.org/exhibition/titus-kaphar-the-jerome-project (accessed April 25, 2016).

[3] The Jack Shainman Gallery, “Titus Kaphar,” Artists, http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/titus-kaphar/ (accessed April 26, 2016).

[4] The Studio Museum, “About,” http://www.studiomuseum.org/about/about (accessed April 27, 2016); “Naima J. Keith,” http://www.naimajkeith.com/about/ (accessed April 26, 2016).

[5] The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, “Studio Salon: Titus Kaphar and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad Discuss The New Jim Crow,” Livestream, http://livestream.com/schomburgcenter/events/3691812 (accessed April 26, 2016).

[6] The Studio Museum, “Titus Kaphar: The Jerome Project.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Coates, 14.

[9] Alanna Martinez, “The Artist Recommends: Studio Museum Star Titus Kaphar Shares His Reading List,” The Observer, January 15, 2015, http://observer.com/2015/01/the-artist-recommends-titus-kaphar-shares-his-required-reading-list/ (accessed April 26, 2016); The Studio Museum, “Teaching and Learning Workshop for K-12 Educators: Creating Portraits with Titus Kaphar,” Events, http://www.studiomuseum.org/event-calendar/event/teaching-learning-workshop-k-12-educators-2015-02-26 (accessed April 25, 2016); The Studio Museum, “Studio Squared: Portraiture and the Black, Male Body,” Events, http://www.studiomuseum.org/event-calendar/event/studio-squared-2014-12-11 (accessed April 26, 2016).

[10] The Studio Museum, “Studio Salon: Titus Kaphar and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad Discuss The New Jim Crow,” Events, http://www.studiomuseum.org/event-calendar/event/studio-salon-2015-02-08 (accessed April 25, 2016); Schomburg Center, “Studio Salon.”

[11] Alanna Martinez, “Titus Kaphar Talks Criminal Justice, His TIME Painting, and First Show at Jack Shainman,” The Observer, January 9, 2015, http://observer.com/2015/01/titus-kaphar-talks-criminal-justice-his-time-painting-and-first-show-at-jack-shainman/ (accessed April 26, 2016).

[12] Priscilla Frank, “‘Jerome Project’ Investigates The Racial Bias of The Prison Industrial Complex,” The Huffington Post, March 11, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/11/titus-kaphar_n_6843956.html (accessed April 27, 2016).

Featured Image: Jerome (Set) (The Huffington Post)

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