FLOD Spotlight - Issue 4

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Social Canvas - The Art of Ajamu Kojo.

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

York City?

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

your wife?

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

survived that.

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

proud of?

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

family, Entrepreneurs

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

moment?

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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