Ghosts of dead black men

Composite portrait, including Trayvon Martin, in artist Titus Kaphar''s "The Jerome Project."

Composite portrait, including Trayvon Martin, in artist Titus Kaphar’s “The Jerome Project.”


The asphalt-and-tar composite portraits — haunting, at first glance seemingly out of focus — peer unflinchingly at viewers.

They are the overlaid faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo — black men racially profiled and killed by police or law enforcement representatives in Titus Kaphar’s “The Jerome Project” exhibit, one of two installations by the artist showing at the Contemporary Arts Center through Oct. 11.

The Contemporary Arts Center invited the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio to a private, small-group tour of the exhibits. Center officials asked for ideas on how to connect the exhibit to the city’s current police-community challenges and to the young African-Americans whose lives are most affected by the twin social ills of poverty and violence.

“The Jerome Project,” paired with Kaphar’s “The Vesper Project” — a universal search to find and understand his black family history — form a real-time examination of America’s ongoing racial struggle.

Kaphar, 39, after all, is the artist who painted the Ferguson, Mo., protestors’ portrait for Time Magazine’s 2014 Person of the Year edition.

His visual treatment of Ferguson protestors is similar to he covers up the history of the three women he paints in “Vesper,” whose skin — hands, arms, faces up to the bridge of the nose — are covered with newspaper. Their personal stories and histories are not known, mirroring how Kaphar obscures the black open hands, raised arms and faces of Ferguson protestors in the sights of police guns.

Cincinnati is among the major U.S. cities where a police shooting of an unarmed black man led to widespread violence. A white Cincinnati Police officer shot and killed unarmed Timothy Thomas, who was running away and trying to climb a wall, on April 7, 2001 in Over-the-Rhine. The shooting led to weeks of violence and protests and, ultimately, to the widely hailed Collaborative Agreement that changed the way Cincinnati’s police department worked.

The creation of the Community Police Partnering Center, housed in the Greater Cincinnati Urban League, Avondale. The Center, led by executive director Dorothy Smoot, the local Urban League’s chief program officer, has successfully brought police, community members and business owners together to come up with mutually agreeable solutions to neighborhood problems ranging from shootings and property crime to drug dealing and prostitution.

Cincinnati-based activists the Rev, Damon Lynch III and Iris Roley of the Black United Front, distributed copies of the Collaborative Agreement in Ferguson, a predominantly black St. Louis suburb, in August at the height of protest. A white police officer had fatally shot an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, 18.

Still, while Cincinnati Police reforms have improved the relationship the community has with law enforcement, the city is plagued by gun violence.

Through June 27, Cincinnati had experienced 38 homicides, compared to 40 in the same period in 2014. Shooting victims, however, are up 28.4 percent, from 176 in 2014 to 226 this year, according to Cincinnati Police data.

The Contemporary Arts Center tour included Hyde Park School Principal Tianay Amat, former Cincinnati School Board member Vanessa Y. White, Cincinnati Enquirer editorial board member Byron McCauley, and Clarence Newsome, president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The consensus of a post-tour discussion was that while exposing African-American youths to the exhibits would be positive, supports needed to be in place to help them deal with the psychological “can of worms” that might open as a result.

Newsome said he wanted the Freedom Center staff to tour the exhibit.

The genesis of “The Jerome Project” came when artist Kaphar performed a Google search for his father’s name and date of birth, which resulted in the find of 90 men, whom, like his father, had been incarcerated. The work represents, he said, “a community, specifically African-American men, who are statistically overrepresented in our nation’s prison population.”

Though African-Americans make up only 12.5 percent of Ohio’s population, they represent more than 45 percent of the state’s prison population. Closer to home, in Hamilton County, where 25 percent of the population is black, African-Americans comprise 60 percent of the people processed through the criminal justice system.


The Contemporary Arts Center, 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday through Monday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. Admission is free for CAC members and children under 5, $7.50 for adults and $5.50 for people 60 and older. Call (513) 345-8400.

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