Artist Titus Kaphar reflects on forgotten moments in history

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The painting Seeing Through Time, on show at The Time is Always Now at The National Portrait Gallery, creates an important conversation between the past and present.

Writing about art can be tricky. Maybe everyone who has looked at a painting has different perceptions of it.

But every once in a while, you come across a painting that is so straightforward and unwavering in what the artist wants it to say, that you can do nothing but quietly stare at it and confront the questions it asks you. Seeing Through Time by Titus Kaphar (2018) is one such work of art.

Walking through The Time Is Always Now exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, surrounded by contemporary art where “artists reframe the black figure”, each room is an experience of its own.

Curated by Ekow Eshun, it showcases contemporary artists who have explored and talked about the absence of Black figures in Western art history.

While there are other works by Titus Kaphar at the exhibition, Seeing Through Time (2018) commands to be seen. What catches the eye first are the layers of the painting, the face of a black woman behind the painting of a European character and a young black boy. 

Seeing Through Time is vibrant, and immediately it calls attention to the expression on the woman’s face and the young boy gazing up at her.

In an interview with Bomb magazine in 2019, talking about the layering of the two paintings and how it creates a warp in time, Kaphar says “The removal of the European character from the painting creates a space for a young black page to encounter a contemporary black woman. They exchange a gaze. These two paintings create a conversation between the historic and contemporary representation of black people in painting.”

Titus Kaphar is known for using modern art styles to take you back in history and bring attention to the absence of representation.

The American artist’s work spans sculpture, painting, and installations. He has won many awards and was featured on the cover of Time magazine’s June 2020 issue.

I was at the gallery for almost an hour-and-a-half, looking at every artwork carefully, but I kept coming back to Seeing Through Time (2018), and it has stayed with me since.

In a small section of the exhibition, this larger-than-life oil painting intrigued me. I was transfixed by the vibrant colours of the painting, the bold expression on the faces of its subjects, and the unique style of artwork.

Installation view of Seeing Through Time (2018) at the National Portrait Gallery, London [Ruta Bakshi]

What I particularly love about it is that even if I were to see the painting without the setting of the exhibition and its theme, I would still understand what the artist is trying to present in the painting.

True to its name, it makes you see through time and focus on a part of history that is undocumented and under-represented.

Titus Kaphar’s work at The Time Is Always Now exhibition sparks an important discussion about the representation of Black life in art history.

As I stared at the brown-eyed woman in the painting, I couldn’t help but think about all the contributions people of colour have made which have been forgotten.

Featured Image by Ruta Bakshi.

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