More about The Cost of Removal

Sr. Contributor

There’s been a lot of debate in recent years over whether statues and monuments with troubling history should be kept or removed. Titus Kaphar found a brilliant third option: amending art history to highlight the forgotten voices of our past.

It’s no secret that Andrew Jackson isn’t exactly popular, and rightfully so. He’s responsible for one of the most messed up pieces of American history, the Trail of Tears. The forced relocation of Native Americans that led to the death of thousands. Here Kaphar has recreated Ralph Earl’s 1836 portrait of Andrew Jackson and shifted the focus to showcase the weight of his actions. 

Ralph Earl’s painting follows a tradition of equestrian portraits used to emphasize the strength of a powerful figure; take Napoleon Crossing the Alps, for instance. Here, in Kaphar’s recreation, Jackson’s been muted, his mouth is obscured by his own words that have been printed on canvas and nailed into his face. The torn documents are covered with Jackson’s writings regarding the cost of removing Native Americans from their lands. 

At first glance, you might think the nails are meant to transform Jackson’s “heroic” image into that of a voodoo doll being bombarded with stabby karma, but it cuts a bit deeper than that. The nails are inspired by African fetish objects where the number of nails are representative of the number of people placing their faith into the power of the object. In this case, all the nails are tragically misplaced because Jackson was terrible.

This piece shares its aesthetic with Kaphar’s 2016 painting Shadows of Liberty which features George Washington also covered with nails and torn pages. In Washington’s artwork, the pages are covered with the names of the three hundred slaves who worked on his plantation. 

The papers and nails aren’t the only alterations by Kaphar, the horse Jackson is riding is also styled differently. In Earl’s portrait, the horse’s head is bowed towards Jackson’s torso in a more submissive pose, likely to further the agenda of showcasing Jackson as a powerful leader. In Kaphar’s, the horse’s head is raised away from Jackson’s, and it stands on its hind legs. It's possible the horse’s head was simply moved so it wouldn’t be lost under the torn papers, but perhaps Kaphar wanted to free the horse from having to bow to his jerk of a rider.

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