Two years ago, in the middle of the night, sculptures of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, John Reagan and Albert Sidney Johnston were removed from UT’s South Mall. University President Gregory Fenves said in 2017 that the sculptures were removed because “Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.” Now, the empty pedestals demonstrate the steps that the university is taking to distance itself from an imperfect civil rights track record. But the conversation about the statues and their legacy is not yet over. These sculptures and other Confederate monuments across America have reinforced a “lost-cause” narrative of the Civil War for decades, but now that narrative is changing. For artist Titus Kaphar, new sculptures may be a way to accomplish that shift. His Monumental Inversions series has been used to address the long unacknowledged history of slavery at Princeton University, and to re-examine some of America’s founding fathers.
Kaphar’s Impressions of Liberty is an inverted bust of Samuel Finley, slave owner and fifth president of Princeton University. The hollow bust is fronted by an etched glass panel depicting a family of slaves. In November 2017, Impressions of Liberty sat in front of the Princeton Alumni House, where Finley (and those he enslaved) lived during his term as university president. The sculpture shines a light on Princeton’s complicity in slavery alongside the Princeton and Slavery Project, which investigated the issue for the first time, a long overdue step considering the school’s first nine presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives. Kaphar’s sculptural relief remembers Finley while shifting the focus toward the enslaved people that both the university and history had largely ignored. It is a new sort of monument that seeks, in Kaphar’s words, to “amend history” by foregrounding the information traditional monuments hide. As the push to remove Confederate monuments continues, Kaphar suggests that “rather than just taking these things down, we can engage contemporary artists to make work that actually pushes back against these public monuments.”
Kaphar’s work pushes back at even our nations’s founders, examining their complicity in slavery. His Monumental Inversion: George Washington includes hollow glass shapes falling out of a burnt wood mold of George Washington’s silhouette. In typical monument form, Washington sits proudly on his horse, but here his image is recessed and incomplete. The loose glass suggest that his glory and nobility are fragile, a connection Kaphar draws even more clearly in an adjacent sculpture entitled A Pillow for Fragile Fictions. The title addresses how the popular image of Washington as pure and virtuous is an American myth, a fragile fiction seen as factual when engraved in marble. For this piece, his head was crafted from hand-blown glass and has been partially filled with rum, tamarind, lime, and molasses. It rests on a pillow made with marble patterned fabric. In this sculpture, the materials tell a contradictory story to the conventionally presented image of George Washington. The mixture inside his glass head is comprised of ingredients Washington received in exchange for an enslaved man, and by alluding to this incident, Kaphar shifts the focus from Washington’s statesmanship to his moral failures.
The Monumental Inversions sculpture series asks whether or not it is possible to continue to revere our American heroes when we acknowledge that their actions did not always promote “liberty and justice for all.” While Washington is less of a rallying point for neo-Confederates than Robert E. Lee, the fact that he owned slaves complicates his position as a byword for American values. “Slavery is complicated,” Kaphar agrees, “but at the end of the day, in a country that holds liberty as its highest value, our early leaders enslaved people.” Instead of attempting to end the widespread celebration of George Washington or deny Finley’s contributions to Princeton University, Kaphar’s sculptures are amendments that remind viewers of uncomfortable historical realities and the complexity of our shared past.