While staring at a painting by artist Titus Kaphar at the Yale Art Gallery, a man named Benjamin Vesper experienced a psychotic break and attacked one of the figures in the painting. Vesper was arrested and subsequently admitted to the Connecticut Valley Hospital where his full identity and background remained a mystery. During the course of his sessions with a psychologist, Vesper began to reveal details about himself and his family's troubled history. Vesper remained secretive about the letters and documents he wrote to Kaphar. In 2008, Vesper wandered off the hospital grounds, and was found squatting in a 19th century house that he insisted belonged to his family. In fact, the original Vesper home had burned down in the early 1900s. It seems Mr. Vesper needed such a space to return to, in order to engage with his own memory. It was this event that inspired “The Vesper Project” installation at Friedman Benda gallery.
This exhibition includes art works inspired by the patient's frequent correspondence with Kaphar. From this verbal and pictorial dialogue emerges the story of a 19th century family who are able to "pass" as a white family in New England although their mixed heritage makes them "Negro" in the eyes of the law. The father, Captain Abram Vesper, is a former Brazilian slave whose entrepreneurial spirit brings him increasing success in Europe and Reconstruction-era America as a navigator, merchant, and eventual owner of a small shipping company. Having lost his only son under tragic wartime circumstances, Vesper's hope of establishing any kind of legacy lies in his three fair-skinned daughters, the youngest of whom has come of age just in time to marry the son of a prominent shipping magnate. But before their engagement is finalized, Vesper's daughter becomes pregnant, extinguishing any hope of a financial merger. As their public image unravels, the Vesper family's racial secret is also made public. What follows is a predictable downward spiral of violence that destroys everything Vesper had accomplished in hopes of immortalizing his family name.
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