When artist Titus Kaphar began searching for his father’s prison records in 2011, he found the mugshots of 99 other black, incarcerated men who shared his dad’s first and last name. “I simply wanted to know where he was,” Kaphar told Hyperallergic, explaining that he’d left his father’s home during his first year of high school and was struggling to deal with their conflicted relationship.
The discovery of multiple Jeromes led him down an unexpected path. He started The Jerome Project, a personal and political body of work that considers the overrepresentation of African-American males in the prison system. “When it comes to the issue of jails and prisons, there are a lot of folks who haven’t had to deal with this system directly, who believe that if you find yourself wrapped up in it, you probably deserve it, so what happens to you while you are incarcerated doesn’t concern them,” Kaphar said.
The Jerome Project brings viewers face to face with these members of society. On view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the series features carefully rendered oil portraits based on police sketches of the imprisoned men with his father’s name. Each is embellished with gold leaf, echoing Byzantine icons, and partially submerged in tar. The height of the tar roughly marks the amount of time the person spent in prison, and also alludes to the way jail time forever tarnishes ex-inmates, making it hard for them to get jobs and sometimes even stripping them of their democratic freedoms.
Though these paintings originated in Kaphar’s effort to deal with his own family history, they’ve taken on a new relevance in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police. And they raise tough questions. “What is the impact of our criminal justice system on our conception of democracy itself?” Kaphar asked. “What does it imply about us that we so easily strip the freedoms of our citizens of the values that we hold most sacred as a nation?”
The artist has continued exploring these issues through chalk-on-asphalt portraits made up of multiple Jerome mug shots, disorienting images that were recently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery. And in January, he received a Creative Capital award that will allow him to extend The Jerome Project to include interviews with black prisoners who share his father’s name, along with a cinematic collage exploring their narratives.
Lately it feels like a wave of artists, including Damon Davis and the Yams Collective, have been addressing the pervasive, institutionalized racism that plagues America. But, interestingly enough, Kaphar said he doesn’t think all artists need to be overtly responding to politics. “I think that the problems of this world will be a natural outgrowth of some artists’ practice, and the celestial and ineffable will be the focus of others,” he said. “Attempting to create mandates for the production of art in and of itself can be the death nail to creativity. For some citizens in this country, their very existence becomes a kind of political act.”