Saturday, October 20, 2012

Kojo Kamau: "Artistic Impressions With Historical Significance Documenting Home And Far Away Places"

Kojo Kamau, Elijah Pierce. Courtesy of the artist.
Kojo Kamau was my subject once before, when I was writing artist profiles for Columbus Monthly magazine, and he was the 2007 recipient of the prestigious Ohioana Career Award for "outstanding professional accomplishment in arts and humanities." In receiving the prize, he joined a group that includes Suzanne Farrell, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Aminah Robinson, Toni Morrison, Lillian Gish, and Burgess Meredith. Kojo, as he is known at home, studied photography at Columbus College of Art and Design, which prepared him for his professional career in the Air Force and, later, as chief medical photographer at the Ohio State University Hospital. He created and occupied the position of staff photographer for the Columbus Symphony.

But this month, in a career retrospective at the Shot Tower Gallery at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Kojo tells his own story visually in a way fuller, more elegant, and with more dignity than it's likely any writer can. Through the range and quality of his vision one gains not only memorable images, but a memorable look at a human being whose art gives the just measure of his character.

Kojo Kamau, Aminah Robinson. Courtesy of the artist.
Kojo was born into the Jones family and received the name of Bob Jr. He chose an African name in 1970: "Kojo" for "unconquerable," "Kamau" for "quiet one," thereby demonstrating what one sees in his work: confidence and self-knowledge. While he is a commercial photographer of great enterprise who supports himself by his work, among Columbus's artists, he is the legatee of Elijah Pierce. He seamlessly assumed the role of generous teacher, mentor, advocate, and organizer, particularly for a generation of African-American artists. Kojo founded the community-based Action for Community Expression (ACE), which encouraged African-American participation in the arts, a profoundly effective and influential group. Still, many credit him personally with helping them find arts careers they would otherwise never have dreamed. Kojo and Aminah Robinson both knew and learned from Pierce; both have in turn inspired the next generation of Columbus artists with respect like they received from the generation before them (see Starr Review, "Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing," May 2012.)

Kojo Kamau, Rusty Bryant. Courtesy of the artist.
Over his career, Kojo has documented hundreds of artists in all genres. He's memorialized Columbus's very rich legacy of mid- and late-twentieth century artists and performers (these include keyboardists Hank Marr, Bobby Floyd, and Aaron Diehl; and outsider artist William Hawkins) as well as anyone who came or comes to town (Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Abbey Lincoln, Muhammed Ali, Spike Lee).

Kojo's portraits of artists certainly document a large part of his own heart— his own conviction that the arts are central and vital to everyday human experience; that economic and social status shouldn't affect access to participation in arts, either as creator or audience. 

Kojo's images never show artists as alien, or above the viewer, however they are costumed or wherever they stand. He conveys a familiar essence, enhanced by his own way of polishing the individual's particular personality. You realize that these people are special, but they are not glamorous as much as they command our respect for their vision and accomplishment. We recognize that they are cut from the same, human cloth that we are. That's why we admire them so much: It's seeing our similarities with them that makes their art so wonderful and valuable.
Kojo Kamau, Smoky Brown (outsider artist). Courtesy of the artist.
Kojo Kamau, Stormy Sunday (BW). Courtesy of the artist.

Portraits of Columbus artists form one aspect of Kojo's greater, comprehensive portrait of the city, and his self-portrait as a native and citizen of this place. Ever since his student days, city scenes have articulated his pride, pleasure, and hopes for this community. (see Starr Review, "Location, Location, Location! Cityscapes of Harvey Gilliam and Kojo Kamau," February 2012.) Many of his photographs of downtown take advantage of the classic urban elements of skyscrapers against a brilliant horizon, handsome spans across a broad, curving  river that mirrors and extends the height of the buildings on its banks: Columbus, seen from the west, provides those classic elements of urban beauty that should, I imagine, make the heart of any native photographer glow. He has often created distinctive works of elegance from Scioto River views.

Kojo Kamau, Progress 2: Fort Hayes Hotel, 1977.
Courtesy of the artist.
But Kojo has not only documented urban pin-ups with contrasting hard edges—like the Afro-American neighborhood dispossessed by the construction of freeway that guillotined it from Downtown—but he has also invoked through a series of wonderfully succinct images, the Progress series, the ironies of social and political forces competing to shape and define an ever-better city. These may be the images that most truly illustrate the photographer's intimacy with the city not simply as a subject, but as self. Striking as the contrast (visual and emotional) of Progress 2 may be, the close detail of the rubble, falling out from the old hotel virtually into our laps, is striking and poignant. 

The viewer cannot tell from the picture alone what the Fort Hayes Hotel looked like—whether it was a monstrosity whose time had long since come, or whether it was a landmark it was criminal to destroy. The detail itself is what matters, especially compared to the sleek, simple lines of the modern tower beyond. The accumulation of information from the old building speaks to experience, time, and history themselves, even without any evaluative overlay of aesthetics or sentiment. The Fort Hays Hotel endured. It was always there; a fact of the city. As such, it was part of the life of Kojo and all others who spent their lives in Columbus. The destruction of a familiar, old building goes beyond civic, temporal value into its value as embodied memory for those who have moved through and around it ; those who know the city's geography by its presence, and who will be made strangers by its absence.

Such images of upheaval in his Progress series, all of which portray the destruction of something in the manmade landscape, are among the most poignant in Kojo's work, which abounds in images of people of all levels of social standing all around the world, particularly the African diaspora. Wherever he shoots people, he shoots from the heart, and his camera, like his eye, finds only dignity in emotion common to people everywhere, in every culture.
Kojo Kamau, Moton Field. Courtesy of the artist.
Sorrow, despair, regret—nostalgia, even—never have human faces in his work. He has photographed the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was murdered, with no one in the frame—only the rooms, his balcony, and a commemorative marker. His image of Moton Field at Tuskegee Institute is similarly taciturn. He withholds pride and the intrinsic sorrows of war and segregation for his viewers to experience. His faith is in the symbols, and in the viewer's ability to identify and absorb them; then to experience the emotion the more powerfully for owning it. Note, however, that here he combines black and white with minimal color. It is a very calm, understated photograph, but the airplane's markings are in color; the plane steps up to deliver the soliloquy on a low-lit stage.

Kojo Kamau, Heads High. Group of photos from Ivory Coast, Brazil, etc. Courtesy of the artist.
Kojo's respect for every person he photographs is radiantly clear. He has traveled very extensively (not only in Africa and the Diaspora; the current show includes haunting photographs from travels in Switzerland, for example) . In Africa, he has photographed people in scenes that would be difficult for Westerners to obtain. But anyone who spends a few minutes in conversation with Kojo quickly learns how he gets the pictures he does: He is calm and quiet, gracious and smiling and has nothing at all pushy about him. So while it is the custom in West Africa that one not photograph strangers, he nevertheless has beautiful images of people at daily tasks. He reminds me that groups are easier to capture than individuals, but we agree that it requires a selfless invisibility to take such pictures. 
Kojo Kamau, Marketplace. Group of photos from Ivory Coast, Senegal, etc. Courtesy of the artist.

In Kojo's case, he does not have to take on this invisible quality; nor does he acquire it as a matter of his skin color, for the differences between African-Americans and Africans are obvious to both. It is simply a matter, if you will, of inherently fine human manners. The imagination that makes the artist and puts him in the subject's shoes is the same that makes the man and puts him in another man's shoes. Thus, in his pictures from non-industrialized countries, where Westerners are prone to think of people first through concerns about standards of living, wealth and poverty, health and disease, Kojo means to capture—and does capture—people obsessed with none of the above, but with the normal duties, dreams, and emotions of their real, daily lives.

Kojo Kamau, Run Jesse. Courtesy of the artist.
Through this lens Kojo has long documented American political figures and political campaigns. He has an impressive collection of Presidents both as candidates and as elected heads of state taken as they've come through Columbus, and also at party conventions. In this show, pictures of Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson are particularly striking. 

Kojo's images of politicians are positive: He figures them as the hope of the people in a democracy; as those who should, will, and do represent the citizenry. This category of picture may have ironies in it—a drunk sprawled on the steps of Madison Square Garden while Democratic convention-goers walk, unseeing, over and around him—but he does not portray a black-hearted political system. He portrays politicians and/or citizens with heart. He shows presidential candidates surrounded by voters, by enthusiasm, by a sense of people excited by and committed to government by responsible leaders. His photographs of African-American political figures especially are of strong, polished people, always elevated and always smiling: Ready and able.
Kojo Kamau, On the Road #65 (Michelle Obama). Courtesy of the artist.

Kojo's retrospective closes on November 2. It offers many images beautiful, exciting, wry, or uplifting, any one of which is worth a visit on its own merits. But I love the portrait of the artist and his vision of the world that emerge from the show. He shows us a place where people are indeed endowed with equal rights by virtue of common needs, activities, and desires.

It's a world with important roles for leaders. He believes that people with singular gifts can inspire us; that we bear with these people special relationships of respect on the one side and responsibility on the other. Kojo's political portraits emphasize the intensity of the connection between people and their leaders. His portraits of artists, pictured in their singularity, show the strains of work and thought on their faces, the weight of the responsibility they bear for their humane efforts.

Kojo Kamau, On the Road #62. Courtesy of the artist.
While Kojo documents a wide selection of subjects and experiences, his body of work adds up to one man very clearly defined, not only by his talent and his eye, but by his caring, hopeful, and pragmatic intuitions about a decent world.

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