While attending Howard University you
majored in Film and TV Production and
worked on three indie shorts. How did
your experiences at Howard University
shape you as an artist?
COVER STORY | AJAMU KOJO
It had a great impact on who I am as an artist. I would have
to say that the time I spent on campus, coupled with the
time that I spent off campus in the community, helped me
shape some of the stories that I created. And some of the
experiences that I had or received have definitely helped
to enlighten me in a way that is applicable to my career
currently as an artist—educating myself—being educated in
school, attending a historically [significant] black university.
It was one of those schools that people consider the cream
of the crop. So that was something that was an advantage
for me at the time. That legacy influenced me in [what] I
do—what I had to live up to.
You received an award for one of the
three indie films at the Chicago Film
Festival. What was that moment like?
Black Gold: Dr. Olivia J. Hooker:
First African-American woman to enter the
U.S. Coast Guard, February 1945
Article Credit: Theo Daniels, James Arena
Ajamu Kojo is an artist based in New York who recently kicked off his first exhibit called Black
Wall Street: A Case For Reparations. A centerpiece of Kojo’s exhibit is a painting called Black Gold
which features Dr. Olivia J. Hooker, the first African-American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard.
The exhibit showcases multiple oil paintings of African-Americans donning attire of an era where
the black business community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, once thrived until a race riot occurred in 1921.
Some of Kojo’s most notable paintings include work from his series The Other Lies and Inspiration.
He recently spoke with FLOD to discuss the experiences that impacted him as an artist, his biggest
hurdle and how the exhibit Black Wall Street came to be.
It was good. It confirmed that the passion that I [felt] was
real. It was a direct result of having been influenced, when
you talk about how Howard shaped my career as an artist.
This is an example of that. Spending time in the community,
I made a living as a barber. So I cut the hair of many
students. And I experienced a lot in the two barbershops
that I worked at. And I applied those experiences and
developed them into stories. Which was educational fun,
you know? I got to learn a lot just by spending time in the
shop and probably would say that my education there was
just as important if not more than it was in the books, so to
speak. So I made a short film, laid caution to the wind, let
the chips fall where they may. And it was introduced at the
Chicago Film Festival. So that was a great experience for
me. Definitely something that I will always remember.
What was the name of the film that won
an award at the film festival?
The name of the film was Baddy.
“Li’ap tan pou’l fime zèb li” or
“She’s waiting to smoke her herbs”
Photo Credit: Ajamu Kojo
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What has been your biggest hurdle?
New York City.
Photo Credit: Ajamu Kojo
It’s that hard making a living in New
Man it’s definitely one big hurdle. I’m telling you. I don’t
know if you’ve ever been to New York. But it’s a monster of a
beast. Any and everything that New York City encapsulates
is a monster of a challenge—one that I have accepted.
My name is Ajamu. I was given this name by my father by
his Nigerian friend in college. It means he who fights for
what he wants. And I’ve always felt responsible to live up to
that. And I don’t give up easy. It’s a hurdle, but I embrace it.
How do you balance spending time
working on indie film projects, working
as a scenic artist at USA Local 829, and
maintaining a healthy relationship with
It’s about encompassing that hurdle that we spoke about
in the start. The writing has taken a backseat to the art.
It’s always something that’s dear to me. I hope to pick it
back up. It would be better if that took a backseat [rather]
than my wife. [Laughs.] [I] work anywhere from eight to 10
hours doing scenic artwork for film, television and theater,
just depending upon which gig I’m working on. And then I
come to the galley and I fucking paint. Like, I just have to
do it. Especially now that I’m paying for the space. I feel like
I could easily blow it off if I was not financially invested in
the space. I hope that’s not true actually because one day
I do wish to have my own studio on my own property. And
I really don’t think it would change, because I live to paint.
Once again, going back to my name—it’s what I want so
I’m gonna fight for it.
Black women, in particular, are at the
center of a lot of your work. For example,
your Little Africa piece features Dr.
Olivia Hooker, and Your Queen to Be,
She Is, featuring the First Lady, Michelle
Obama. Did you paint these pieces to
make a political statement, or did you
have a specific goal in mind?
Maybe not consciously, but like I feel like it’s in everything
that I do on a daily basis. Everything has some sort of—at
least a social slant. First of all, I love black women! So I’m
gonna like honor them—honor them in the way that I can.
And come on, it’s like a no brainer—it’s the first lady. The
first lady [who is] black. So why wouldn’t you want to record
that as an artist if you can? So in that sense, sure there’s
a social aspect. Political? I guess it depends on how you
want to look at it. Dr. Hooker, for certain, that was a political
statement—like she’s still here. She still has stories to
share, and I think that people need to be aware. Like her
family—they owned businesses. Dude, that’s crazy. And
she’s still here to talk about it and to share her legacy, which
is our legacy. Yeah, there’s a political slant to that. It’s also
a social commentary to be heard or to be investigated.
Tell me the story behind the Black Wall
Street: A Case for Reparations exhibition,
which started on January 5th? How did
that come to be?
The opening for the show was January 5, 2017. But it
started in Washington, DC, while I was attending Howard
University, when I was first exposed to it. Once again, you
really, really had to seek out information back then. But
anyway, I was at Howard. I can’t remember exactly when
the film Rosewood came out. But I feel like it was at that
time because it was screened in DC. And I went to go see
it and asked questions. I wasn’t sure if Black Wall Street
was Rosewood or if Rosewood was Black Wall Street. I
wasn’t quite clear on it until I really started to dig in—so I
was amazed. I was impressed, and I wondered why I could
not find much information on it.
And it wasn’t until years later that I realized that people
were trying to hide it. A tarnish on American history. And it
was something that not only folks outside the community in
Oklahoma, but also folks from the community kinda didn’t
want to really address because of fear. Fear that it could
happen again. There were black folks in the community
that were directly affected by it. And then, of course, you
know, outside the community people were like they don’t
want to have that on their conscience, so they ignore it.
It was always there, and I knew I wanted to do something
to address it and to honor it. I thought about creating a
documentary or a narrative or something. Last year my wife
and I were heading out and she found this interview online
about this older woman of a certain age—a black woman
was being interviewed by somebody. And she just started
talking about her experience on that day when terrorism
occurred on American soil. And her name was Dr. Olivia
J. Hooker. I was amazed by what she had to say because
I didn’t know about it. Not only did I not know about it,
but [I wondered] what happens like to someone who has
So I don’t know what it was about that interview, but
something told me this is what I needed to do—in terms of
like addressing the history from an artistic point of view. So
my wife and I researched how to contact her. I was doing
COVER STORY | AJAMU KOJO
that for a couple of days and eventually got in touch with
someone that knew her, but did not have access to her. So
I just made it my business to find out where she was. I think
I found a fan page on Facebook or something that lead me
to knowing that she was going to be holding a speaking
engagement and that she lived in Upstate New York. And
[that] engagement happened to occur during Black History
month 2016. My wife and I hopped on the Metro North, and
we went up to listen and to learn. And to engage and to ask
questions. We listened to her address the crowd, speak
and tell her stories. And then we spoke to her afterwards. A
couple of days later, I checked in with her, and I asked her if
I could photograph her and include her portrait in the series
for my exhibition. Now, unfortunately, as tack sharp as her
mind was, her physical health was failing. She’s 101 years
old—maybe 102. Either way, she’s elderly. [The] actual
session to be photographed did not [happen], but we were
in definite communication.
“It’s like down south, they don’t care if you get ahead, they
just don’t want you to live next door to them. Racism is out
in your face. But up north, they don’t care if you live next
to them. They just don’t want you getting ahead.”
So I decided that I would research and find an image of
her that I favored, which I did, and I [used] her likeness
as the matriarchal centerpiece for my show. But all along,
man, I was going to the Schomburg Center in Harlem and
just doing research in stacks. Reading as much as I could.
Learning as much as I could. And educating myself as well
as I could in the amount of time that I had on Black Wall
Street. And that snowballed into what it became in regards
to, well, having friends to model in representing actual
citizens who lived on that dreadful day and at time. So
today we have a homage to our blackness by way of fine
art oil paintings and audio taken from the night that we—my
wife and I—had the opportunity to go and listen to when Dr.
Hooker spoke on February 11, 2016. My intent is for the
show to continue to exist and to grow and to travel and to
continue to educate. And that’s the gist of how it came to
be what it is.
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COVER STORY | RICH LITTLE
COVER STORY | AJAMU KOJO
Did you have any experiences politically
or socially that have impacted your life
early on or recently?
Yeah. I think about it—life lessons dealing with racism
growing up in—down south. Profiled. You come from certain
areas, and you learn very early on how racism is expressed.
I heard it put in this way, which I personally have to agree
with: “It’s like down south, they don’t care if you get ahead,
they just don’t want you to live next door to them. Racism
is out in your face. But up north, they don’t care if you live
next to them. They just don’t want you getting ahead.” It’s
more like behind closed doors.
Black Blood, No.3
I grew up down south where there was a point in time where
my family had a little summer home up in the mountains.
And there were things being done, like the home being
defaced or racoons—dead racoons being placed in the
mailbox. My father was a member of SOBU (Student
Organization of Black University). So I always grew up with
a sense of pride as a black person. I just I had experiences
that aren’t new. You’ve heard them—probably experienced
them for yourself if you have not heard them from someone
else. So yeah, it’s influenced my art. I like to talk about
things in my art that are—can be—considered social. That
can be considered political. It’s who I am.
What projects in your career are you most
All of them.
Every last one?
So, if I’m gonna do it, I’m
gonna do it to the best of my
ability and be proud of it.
Yeah. One leads to the other. You learn something from this
one; you apply it to the next one and then so on and so forth.
So I’m just gonna say all of them. And just do whatever you
can to get better and better and better at whatever it is at
what you do. I mean, my pop used to say, ‘Any job worth
doing is worth doing well.’ So, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna
do it to the best of my ability and be proud of it. Go forward
with the next one and apply the same passion towards it.
Photo Credit: Bernie Dechant
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Black Blood, No.1:
In the spirit of John, Loula & Joanna Williams
What’s your favorite book?
What’s your favorite dessert?
I would definitely include Their Eyes Are Watching God by
Zora Neale Hurston. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
And then there’s a plethora of art books that I just like to
thumb through. But those are the ones that come to mind.
Do you have a favorite art movement?
No. For sure the Dutch and Flemish masters have influenced
my work. I did find the surrealist movement interesting with
Rene Magritte. And obviously, Salvador Dali.
What’s a food that you can’t live without?
Cheese. A meal is not a meal without cheese. I know it’s
not good for you. Like I love to eat cheese. Any kind of
cheese any form.
I’m kinda boring when it comes to that. You know what?
Peach cobbler and ice cream. That’s the southern boy in
me. Yeah give me some peach cobbler with a nice crispy
crust and put the ice cream on there while it’s hot.
What’s your favorite TV show at the
I really enjoyed Atlanta.
You can learn more about Ajamu’s work at
http://ajamukojo.com/home.html The Black
Wall Street exhibit will be on display at The
Sheen Center located in New York, NY 10012
on 18th Bleeker Street until February 19, 2017.
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