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History Lesson: Neighborhoods Reconnected with Cultural Wall, features work by Kojo Kamau

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: Neighborhoods Reconnected with Cultural Wall, features work by Kojo KamauKojo Kamau and his wife Pepper Johnson, during Comfest. Photo by Todd Popp.
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Photograph of the Kahiki by Kojo Kamau, 1979.

Photograph of the Kahiki by Kojo Kamau, 1979.

Today marks the day when downtown will be reconnected to the King-Lincoln district via the Long Street Bridge. King-Lincoln has seen a resurgence of sorts with the revitalization of the Lincoln Theatre and the emergence of several local businesses such as Zanzibar and the Book Suite. To build on this success, a “Long Street Cultural Wall” was proposed as part of the bridge and today is also its formal unveiling.

Two artists with established roots in Columbus were selected to collaborate on the project: Larry Winston Collins and Kojo Kamau. Mr. Collins is a graduate of CCAD and is a professor at Miami University. His contribution will be the representation of dozens of linoleum woodcuts he designed specifically for the bridge which represent notable African-American artists who lived and or performed in the area. In a 2012 interview with Columbus Crossroads he stated that he wanted the project to be an “aesthetic as well as a learning experience.”

Kojo Kamau is the other artist on the project and I had the opportunity to sit down with him at length earlier this year. I first met Kojo a decade ago at the Columbus Arts Festival where he and his wife Pepper were selling photographs of Columbus that he took in the early 1960s. I was immediately struck by his terrific artwork, his gentle way and his deliberate way of speaking. My husband Todd and I purchased a large color photograph of Broad and High taken in 1960 and it furthered my own interest in Columbus history in a way unlike anything else. That led to many more purchases, conversations, friendship and eventually me carrying his books (Columbus Remembered; Lady Lewis, Her Hats, and Her Gloves; Women of the African Diaspora) at the Library Store located inside Columbus Metropolitan Library.

July-Kojo_Kamau_Broad_High

Kojo was born in Columbus in 1939 and went to junior high school in Columbus during the late 1950s with noted Columbus artists Aminah Robinson and Roman Johnson. He lived on South Monroe and told me that Livingston Park was home. (He liked the area so much that he returned to live nearby in Hanford Village as a young man – in part because his sweetheart lived in Driving Park at the end of the Livingston bus line!) It was also during this time that he began to notice the work of George Pierce, a black photographer with a studio on Mt Vernon Avenue. In a 2006 interview with Jennifer Hambrick, he explained:

I would just see him out different places on the street, and I’d see his photographs in the African-American newspaper at the time. He was an influence in my deciding to go into photography, because it was something that I really liked to do and I saw that there was someone making a living at it, and I felt that maybe I could do the same thing.

That encouraged him to take a photography class at East High School and after he graduated in 1957, he went on to study at the Columbus Art School (better known today as CCAD).

He told me that he met an Air Force recruiter in 1960 who told him that if he enlisted he could get any job that he wanted including being a photographer. He joined the Air force and presented his press card from the Columbus Sentinel where he was a youth reporter as his credential for being part of the base newspaper. That convinced the higher –ups and he began editing the base newspaper. At the time it had the 9th ranking out of 13 base papers and within 6 months Kojo had increased the publications reach and had made it the 1st out of all of them! He was even flown to Langley to share what his best practices were to the other editors!

In 1965 he came back to Columbus and after hearing about a job at OSU from his former Boy Scout troop leader, he applied to OSU to be a medical photographer. He got the job and ultimately became the chief medical photographer at OSU.

Elijah Pierce, left and Mrs. Lewis, right. Photographed by Kojo

Elijah Pierce, left and Mrs. Lewis, right. Photographed by Kojo Kamau.

I asked about how he met Elijah Pierce and Kojo said that he first met Mr. Pierce in 1974. “I was mentoring a young person at OSU who asked me to go with him to Mr. Pierce’s studio where he was going to take some photographs of Mr. Pierce and his carvings.”

That visit began a lifelong friendship and mentoring relationship.

During that time he got the urge to open up an art studio and in 1978, he and his then wife Mary Ann Williams opened up Kojo Photo Art Studio. “Mr. Pierce was the first artist I asked to exhibit in the gallery and we showed his statues and carvings. I didn’t have any insurance at the time so I would put up his work when I got there and would take it down and take it home at night!” Apparently, that got to be a little exhausting because he went on to tell me that eventually he would just ‘hide” the work in the gallery when it was closed.

“I always said when I grew up that I wanted to be like Mr. Pierce”

In the same interview with Ms Hambrick, Kojo goes on to say about Mr. Pierce:

He was a gentleman. He was very tall and slim, and I think we may have hit it off because I was not quite as tall as he was, but I was slim and I think I might have reminded him of himself when he was younger. I would go to the barbershop and talk with Mr. Pierce and shoot some photographs. It was always an honor for me for him to come to my openings. I had art reception openings on Sunday afternoons and he and his wife would always come.

In 1979, he and his wife founded the Art for Community Expression gallery (ACE) as a not-for-profit space to allow members of the African-American Community a place to exhibit their work. “ACE is the longest consistently running gallery and it still exists.” In fact, ACE helped his Long Street collaborator go to Africa on an artistic pilgrimage and provided support for many other African-American artists. ACE was even able to help sponsor his boyhood friend Aminah take her first trip to Africa – a continent he has now criss-crossed more than a dozen times.

1n 1981 he closed his own gallery and went back to work for OSU as the chief medical photographer – a position he held until his retirement in 1994.

Another major influence to him was Mrs. Ursel White Lewis. “She convinced me to get involved in the museum. Her goal was to put art in public places. She was an early advocate and a member of the Columbus Museum of Art in 1965. People should know she was not a rich lady. She was a true patron of the arts.”

He told me that “Being the photographer that I am, I am not always welcomed. I’m recording history and it’s hard to understand why people wouldn’t want it recorded.” Kojo has not simply photographed local life in Columbus – he has also documented music legends, African town life, NAACP rallies at the Statehouse and the Million Man March on Washington.

The NAACP March, left. Father's Hands, right.

The NAACP March 1959, left. Father’s Hands/Daddy’s Hands, right.

“It was shortly after my heart attack in 1995. I went with the Muslim Brothers on a bus sponsored by the Nation of Islam. I never had a problem with them. Louis Farrakhan and Reverend Jackson always allowed me to take photographs.”

That prompted me to ask him about his name (which means unconquerable Quiet One in Yoruba) and he told me that he changed his name from Robert Jones to Kojo Kamau in 1970 because “it was important to change my name at that time. It was important that I was known as an African-American shooting photographs and I didn’t want someone to not recognize that. At the time, there were not enough positive images of us.”

I asked him if he could be remembered for a particular photograph, what would it be and he said there were actually two.

“One is called We Shall Overcome. It is the U.S. Flag. In the blue instead of stars are slave ships and in the red are chains to represent slavery. The white represent people who brought my ancestors over here as well as the names of people who made the country great.”

We Shall Overcome.

We Shall Overcome. Kojo Kamau.

“The other is called Father’s Hands/ Daddy’s Hands. It is a close-up of my son and granddaughter. My son is combing her hair and it is meant to convey the pride I have in my son taking care of his daughter.”

He shared with me:

“I’m a simple person and I would like for people to remember to be kind to each other. Everybody’s created equal.”

His many honors, awards and exhibitions include: the Ohioana Library Career Award, 2012 Ray Hanley Fellowship from GCAC and the Columbus Museum of Art presents Kojo: Fifty Years in Photography. He will be inducted into the Lincoln Theatre’s Walk of Fame on July 26, 2014.

The Long Street Cultural Wall will serve as a lasting tribute to the talent of Kojo and Mr. Collins as well as the richness of life in the King-Lincoln community.

For further reading please consider:
Columbus, Remembered by Kojo Kamau
Lady Lewis, Her Hats and Her Gloves by Kojo Kamau
Women of the African Diaspora by Kojo Kamau
History Lesson: The 106th Anniversary of the Death of James Poindexter

Kojo Kamau and Aminah Robinson will be inducted into the Lincoln Theater Walk of Fame on July 26 at 7:00. For further information please visit: Lincolntheatrecolumbus.com

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