|Kojo Kamau, Elijah Pierce. Courtesy of the artist.|
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 Kamau, Rusty Bryant. Courtesy of the artist.|
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.
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.|
|Kojo Kamau, Heads High. Group of photos from Ivory Coast, Brazil, etc. Courtesy of the artist.|
|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.|
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.|