Paint It, Black

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Ajamu Kojo is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas. Kojo attended Howard University where he majored in Film and Television Production and minored in Theatre Arts.  In 2002 Kojo exhibited for the first time at GUMBO -- a group show with curators Patrick -- Earl Barnes and Lawrence Joyner.  In 2004, he exhibited with Carol Jones at the Atelier International Art Group.  In 2014 Kojo presented his series of portraits entitled The Otherlies, at The Governors Island Art Fair, curated by Nicole Laemmle, Jack Robinson and Antony Zito.

Mr. Kojo splits his time between developing independent film projects, working as a scenic artist with USA Local 829 and concentrating on his fine art works. In addition to working on such projects as Law & Order, Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl and BULL. Mr. Kojo is continuously developing works which take on a critical view of social, political and cultural issues through story, slices of life and moments of voyeurism. The Gallery at The Sheen Center exhibited Kojo's Black Wall Street: A Case for Reparations, a socio-political collection created to shed light on a nugget of American history, Black Wall Street (Tulsa, OK).Mr. Kojo lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

The Gallery at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker Street, NYC) presents LR9: 1957, a multimedia group exhibition inspired by the Little Rock Nine. Curated by Ajamu Kojo, the exhibition includes oil painting, collage, sculture, found-object art and projected film works by artists including Patrick Earl Barnes, Kimberly Becoat, Paul Deo, Aimée Everett, Chet Gold, Aaqil Ka, Ajamu Kojo, Roni Nicole and Valincy- Jean Patelli. The exhibition is open to the public through August 3.

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Bradley Rubenstein: So, just starting at the beginning, you grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas…

Ajamu Kojo: I did. In quite the patriarchal environment. I'm not even sure why I felt the need to point that out except that it may shed some light on who I am as a person. The men in my family were a strong influence on my upbringing. In my mind, as a child, all of my uncles were the definition of cool personified. I come from a line of educators, farmers, ministers, entrepreneurs, attorneys... I grew up privileged enough to never need much, yet aware the privilege could be taken away at a moment's notice.

My pop grew up on a farm. My mama did not. My paternal grandfather was a farmer and my paternal grandma, an educator. Both of my mama's parents were educators. My maternal grandfather was a jazz and blues lover. I used to go into his man cave and listen to his 45s and full-length albums as a youth, which is what ultimately lead to my love for jazz music. We were exposed to a bit of everything growing up. My mama would enroll me and my siblings into summer arts programs, and my Pop would instill the importance of hard work. I'll never forget the summer he and my cousin Vernon got me a job cleaning school buses during the dead of summer. I learned very quickly I wasn’t about that life. One summer was enough for me. Yard work and a paper route would suit me just fine!

But I digress…

I seem to recall discovering Miles Davis Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew LPs in the man cave. The Bitches Brew LP cover blew my mind. It was freaky to me. Beautiful, but freaky. I didn't see that image again until I entered college, and that's the moment I knew it was just as special to me as the music inside the album cover's sleeve. The artist's name is Mati Klarwein, and little did I know at the time, my fascination with his work would lead me to Vienna. Up to that point, I'd never set foot inside Europe.

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Yes, Klarwein's works can be attributed directly to my studies in Austria. The hills and mountain regions of Austria reminded me somewhat of Arkansas. Of course the ice cream there is far better. I didn’t formally attend art school under a university setting. I'm primarily self-taught, not to be confused with never having been instructed. I took a summer art course during elementary school and attended art class during high school. I've also been drawing since childhood. But it wasn't until I traveled abroad that I found myself seriously focused under academic tutelage.

BR: Before getting into your painting, you also went to film school, which I think is really relevant to the Black Wall Street series.

AK: It is indeed relevant. I studied film production during my undergraduate years at Howard University. I spent many hours writing and imagining what it would be like to make a living as a filmmaker. I'd been interested in some aspect of storytelling from a young age. I recall being very interested in Archie and Jughead comic books as a youth. That same interest later developed into a fascination for science fiction and fantasy comics like Heavy Metal during my adolescent years. So, yeah, the element of art and storytelling has been a part of my life since early on.

When I began taking on the Black Wall Street series, I knew from the very beginning that the most important element would be the story. What is it that I want to say? Why is it important? And how do I make it universally relatable?

BR: That is something that really comes out in your work, the importance of narrative.

AK: Each painting acts as a single frame out of the 24 that it takes to make up one second in film.

There were many things I experienced while living in D.C. that can be attributed to my fondness for the art of storytelling and film, but there was a very specific moment I seem to remember being directly related to the story of Black Wall Street. I made note of it and filed it away. I knew I'd come back to revisit the idea one day. However, I had no idea when or what form it would eventually take on.

BR: Can you talk a little about that. Not just about the series itself, but all the steps along the way. I think your process is highly conceptual in a way that is very strong.

AK: Well, I initially thought of producing a film on the subject matter, but by the time I was to give it any serious consideration, I was heavily engrossed in my career as a painter. So, I decided perhaps I could mix the two to a degree.

BR: And you do already actually work in the film business, so you are coming at the project with a lot of that knowledge.

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AK: Indeed. Having worked in production years prior and now working in pre-production, I’ve been exposed to the broad strokes of what it takes to create a film on a professional level.

I decided to create a small-scale BTS film documentation of my process. I wanted the portraits to be personal not only for myself and the subjects, but also for the audience. So I decided to enlist the services of my comrades, fellow artists, and friends to encapsulate the spirit of the ancestors that lived before, during, and after the devastation of the Black Wall Street massacre. A good friend of mine served as the production designer. We dressed the set, which was located inside my apartment, and scheduled sittings throughout a 12-hour period. The day was catered, and once I got the last shot, everyone stuck around for a mini wrap party.

There was a lot of hard work involved, and I loved every moment. This of course would be considered the pre-production stage, which was followed by the actual production of creating the paintings, and then of course the post-production/exhibition phase of the works themselves.

The payoff has been extraordinary.

BR: One of the things I find really impressive in the series is how theatrical they are, in the way, say, David is theatrical. You are taking this historical content but adding layers both physically, but also with regards to different disciplines—your photography, art direction, and whatnot. We were talking in your studio about the black pours for example.

AK: Ah yes! The black pours. The mystery. I think what’s been most interesting about the black pour element of the paintings is listening to people’s interpretation of its meaning. Therefore, I don't want to give away too much during this interview. I would however like to share an anecdote about the black pours which frame my canvases: I had a gentleman approach me during the opening and express how the ancestors must have guided the way in which the paint rolled down the canvas as not to obstruct the visage of my subjects. I was both flattered and amused. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I manipulated the canvas in such a way as to control the flow of the paint. But is that not part of the mystique behind art? Create the illusion and wow the audience? It makes sense why I'm such a huge fan of magic; especially sleight of hand.

You mentioned the works being theatrical, and I thank you for the compliment. I must admit, this has been one of the more challenging components to the compositions. In the past, I’ve embraced a more candid approach to my portraits. I enjoy cracking the veneer of my subjects so that the final result feels less contrived. And so, being that the very nature of these portraits lends itself to a more rehearsed composition, the challenge for me is finding a happy medium between that and something far less prepared. Part of that obstacle was overcome by using people I know. That familiarity was helpful. I still feel I can push even further. I'm pleased with the results, but...I dunno.

BR: You have a body of work going which deals strictly within a very traditional history of figure painting…

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AK: My time abroad was spent learning a very specific technique of mixing egg white tempera and oil paints known as the mischtechnik. It is believed to be the closest to the formula that the Dutch and Flemish masters used in their own works. When I initially discovered the art of Mati Klarwein, I wanted to paint like him. I was schooled under the tutelage of Maestro Phil Jacobson, who was taught by Ernst Fuchs. Fuchs also taught Mati the magic technique as well.

BR: That focus on materials and sense of the history of painting is important, especially in the last ten years or so where much painting is being made that is either satirical or emphasizes the "deskilled" artist.

AK: Yea, I mean if I’m gonna be perfectly honest about it, I practice the discipline mainly because it caters to my meticulous nature. I also like the way the paintings look, not quite like traditional oil paintings.

BR: I think approaching the figure is also a political form at the moment. I just saw a piece in New York Magazine, a sort of discussion on the politics of painting the nude right now.

AK: Well, I just so happen to have begun a series of nudes about four years ago. I've created it mainly for two reasons: my appreciation of the human form, in this particular case, the female form; and the lack of Black nudes, people of African descent, in galleries and museums. You’d think there were no Black people deserving of being documented in this way. When you study art history, or visit museums across the globe, nudes are a major inclusion. What's noticeable is a large absence of Black people. These museum walls need some color on them, and my hope is to swamp them with Black bodies. That'll be a nice contribution to American history. Now, if that’s political, so be it, but it damn sure will be beautiful.

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