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Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal

Titus Kaphar's painting "The Cost of Removal" reimagines a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, adding his own elements to critique Jackson's role in the forced removal of Native Americans. Kaphar's work challenges viewers to consider the untold stories and assumptions in art history.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Lauren] We're in the galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at a painting by Titus Kaphar called "The Cost of Removal." We're seeing a copy that the artist made of a painting of the American president, Andrew Jackson, but one that the artist has manipulated. Part of Titus Kaphar's practice is looking to art works that have existed through time, but then what he does is put his own ideas into the work. - [Beth] One gets the sense that he's interested in exposing the kinds of assumptions that are in art history. - [Lauren] Like so many artists, he loves art history but is interested in making us think more critically and to think about what are the things that we're not seeing, and what he thinks about is how he can use his work to expose those ideas. - [Beth] So here we have this heroic image of Andrew Jackson, it's way over life-size, it comes from this tradition of showing leaders on horseback in a landscape. - [Lauren] The president is sitting calmly, very authoritatively. - [Beth] So you have this idea of being calm on this passionate animal that is in a very long tradition of art history. Titus has rendered, beautifully, this old master style of painting of this beautifully foreshortened horse, this landscape, and then covered much of the figure in a way that seems violent. There's a real dissonance here between the paint and then the nails and these strips of cloth. It feels shocking when we first look at it. - [Lauren] Titus often rips into the canvas, cuts into the canvas, paints over parts of it, and in this particular painting, he has nailed strips of torn canvas that have text on them into Jackson's figure. - [Beth] It's covering his mouth. It's made him voiceless, and when I look at the Ralph Earl, I get a real sense of a figure who has a heroic nobility, and by covering up part of that face, he's robbed him of that noble profile. - [Lauren] He's asking us to think beyond that and to look more at Jackson's own words or his own actions. Are these writings on the torn pieces of canvas speaking for him? - [Beth] It's difficult to read the text that's on this canvas, but we know that the title of the painting is "The Cost of Removal," so this is about the removal of Native Americans from their land in the South, east of the Mississippi, to Indian Territory, and this is forcible, coerced, violent removal of native people to Indian territory. - [Lauren] And this was an act that Jackson signed, so he was the president that put this into play, what we call now The Trail of Tears. So he was responsible, ultimately, for this happening. - [Beth] And we're talking about a policy that is blatantly racist, that understood Native Americans as savages that needed to be removed from the land so that white settlers could farm, and by the 1840s, tens of thousands of Native Americans had been removed, so the scale of this is enormous. What are we to make of the nails? Of the strips of canvas with Jackson's handwriting on them that are kind of legible. In one place, I saw a number that seemed to refer to a cost of removing people from the land. But the nails into Jackson, it almost feels as though Kaphar is punishing Jackson for these acts. - [Lauren] And the nails also reference African fetish objects, so this idea that people would put nails into particular objects, and the amount of nails reference how important the object was or how many people put their trust and faith in that. And I think a lot about this idea of how much faith and trust the American people put into their president. - [Beth] The power of the presidency and the impact that he can have on individual lives and families. So the artist is immediately asking us to consider Jackson in a different way. And not only Jackson in this painting, but I think all images that we see of American heroes, of American presidents. What are the other stories that we're not being told? The artist said, "I feel very strongly that most of "the history we have been taught is at best incomplete, "and at worst fiction. "The more I read history, I realize that all depictions are, "to some degree, fiction. "We lose something in the interpretation, "and as I realized that painters throughout history "have embraced this idea of fiction, "I have felt complete freedom to address "these paintings in a way that made sense to me." That reminds me that we have a tendency to believe what we see, especially when we're in a museum, which has a sense of authority, but in fact, we know that not only paintings, but museums, too, have had a role in the kind of terrible oppression that Jackson, himself, was part of. - [Lauren] Everyone is making a choice to tell a particular story, and so often, there are whole groups of people, events, that get left out. Who gets to have their portrait painted? Who gets to have their portrait painted that then goes into a museum collection that then lasts for hundreds of years? So it's asking us to think about who we see, but to never forget who we don't see. (piano music)