As he typed “Destiny” into the search bar of a state and federally maintained prison database,
thought about how the promise parents have for their children is often reflected in the names they give them.
The query returned a screen filled with mug shots of women, mostly black, who had been convicted of varying felonies or were awaiting trial, plus their criminal records and personal details—full name, age, height, weight, race, date of birth, scars, piercings, and tattoos. Kaphar began to paint many of the women and created a new, six-part series of portraits, titled “Destiny” (2016), which is now part of his two-venue painting and sculpture exhibition, “Shifting Skies,” at Jack Shainman Gallery
in New York.
“In a way, the ‘Destiny’ series, takes something that was never intended to be aesthetic, never to be beautiful, but intended to be the lowest form of representation and turns it into something else,” Kaphar tells me, as he stands in the 24th-street gallery surrounded by these portraits. In the exhibition, the 40-year-old artist, who’s now based in New York and Connecticut, takes the images that “memorialize criminality” and transforms them into art that tells the story of the tragedy of our criminal justice system. Destiny II (2016), for instance, features several different Destiny’s, with locks, braids, and straight hair pulled back, that together form one, blurred face with multiple sets of shifting eyes, mouths, ears, and noses. The images are set against a flickering blue background, the backdrop the women stood before to have their mugshots taken.
“I was attempting to take multiple Destiny’s and layer them one on top of the other,” says the artist, who received his MFA in painting from Yale. “Their different destinies have tragically come together in this horrific conclusion of jails and prisons,” he adds. “When I was thinking about the series, I was remembering women’s names: my cousins, friends, and family, names that I knew in the African-American community. All I remember is when I said it out loud—Destiny—the poetry of it wasn’t lost on me.”