In Redaction (Norton, Feb.), painter Kaphar and poet Betts depict racial injustices within the criminal justice system.

How did you two meet?

Betts: We met in New Haven at a dinner with mutual friends. It was one of those conversations that you remember, even if you don’t recall the details. We spent the night debating Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intentions in his memoir, Between the World and Me. We found solidarity in being Black fathers.

Do you consider the carceral practices on which your project focuses as part of what Michelle Alexander refers to as “the new Jim Crow”?

Betts: It’s interesting, a lot of the world began seriously thinking of incarceration in America after Alexander’s important book—but we were always thinking about this. Thinking about our family’s struggles with violence and incarceration. I’ve been locked up, Titus’s father has been in prison. But we’re artists and this art encompasses so much more than a challenge to carceral practices—this book is about friendship, fatherhood, marriage, American history. The Redacted pieces, each of which is both a piece of visual art and a poem, deal with all of those things, not just prison.

Dwayne, why did you decide to use redaction of text as your method?

Betts: Redaction is often thought of as a way to conceal the truth. I wanted to see how it might function as a revelatory constraint, a way to reveal the story that is often buried in complex legal documents. Titus’s work has utilized white washing as a form of redaction in his paintings, so there was a conceptual and visual synergy from the outset.

Titus, why do the portraits in the Redacted series not depict individuals involved in these cases?

Kaphar: Like Dwayne said, redaction is meant to conceal “sensitive” information whereas here, redaction conceals the superfluous to reveal the tragedy. Just as the original intent of the document becomes more legible through our work with redacting, so does the portrait of the individual. With the layers and contours and features of each face, each portrait begins to bleed into the next to disorienting effect—and demands you pay closer attention to notice the individual, instead of just the superficial stereotyping that is often done. The Redaction series seeks to visually articulate the collective inability to disentangle the lives of these men and women.

How did people react to the initial exhibition of this project at MoMA PS1 in 2019?

Betts: We can say a lot about this but for real the coolest thing was watching our moms and wives and sons see us in the space and just have a moment of deep joy and respect for what we’d
created together.