After eight tries and a lifetime of work, this Minneapolis artist finally earned a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and thinks the best is yet to come.
by Robyne Robinson
August 28, 2022
Photo by Cameron Wittig
He will tell you unabashedly that he didn’t expect to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. In fact, after eight tries, Ta-coumba Aiken was certain that he was the record holder for attempts at winning the illustrious artists’ prize. To which a judge told him he wasn’t even close.
“He said, ‘There’s someone who’s applied 44 times,’” Aiken recalls.
It’s a lifelong dream for thousands of artists to be tapped for the award. For some it’s having the title; for others it’s the lucrative purse—on average, fellows receive $55,000 to take six months to a year to research ideas and turn concepts into new works. But for Aiken, it’s the dream of having his work breathing the rarified air of the new masters and legendary artists before him: Jacob Lawrence, Sanford Biggers, Simone Leigh. Aiken’s also the first Black fine arts winner representing Minnesota.
A radical child of the ’70s, now an elder statesman in his 70s, Aiken has joined the pantheon of great Black artists.
“And I’m honored to do my part in that pantheon,” he chuckles.
Dressed in the prerequisite artist black shirt and slacks, Aiken settles comfortably on a stool in his studio, surrounded by his work on plywood boards and canvases—his signature flecks and dots of greens, blues, and oranges outlining Black faces and symbols everywhere.
Aiken’s face is round and fixed with a warm smile, the speckled gray standing out in his closely cropped ’fro and beard. He quietly weaves his answers with engaging stories, drawing you in with mesmerizing effect until the story ends with your answer.
“And I will do my due diligence by keeping at doing what I have been doing, but at a bit higher of a level,” he says. “Because it’s not about the money behind it. It’s the greatness of a lot of people.”
The ideas for his fellowship project are already swirling in his head. But they are prefaced with one caveat: Do not change the nature of his work.
“My work deals with healing,” says Aiken. “It deals with bringing forth some eye-openers about our culture that seem to get skipped over.”
For Aiken, that missing part is examining the dichotomy of the Black middle class, a segment of our culture with a foot in two worlds: one of slavery and Strivers’ Row, W. E. B. Du Bois and Octavia Butler. Aiken wants to explore the complex nature of Black people coming out of a servile past into a new existence carrying a lot of the past with them, and how a fragmented culture can heal itself.
“The term middle class has changed over time in the Black community,” he says. “It’s moved from symbols of acquisition by workers, like TVs and cars, to titles and position—lawyers, doctors. What does the Black middle class represent now? What about gay, Black, and middle class?”
As someone who grew up in north suburban Chicago, he offered comparisons.
Photo by Cameron Wittig
The artist at work: Ta-coumba Aiken paints in his studio.
“My work deals with healing. It deals with bringing forth some eye-openers about our culture.”
— Ta-coumba Aiken
“August Wilson sort of covered that middle-class tension. Look at [the play] Fences,” he says. “My father was also a garbageman. My father was middle class. He had a heavy hand, but my mother kept a big space between that. So, he learned how to communicate trusting her—and trusting his love in her—that her son wouldn’t be stepped on. My father respected me and my painting, but other people had to tell me because he never told me.…He made me an artist by being an antagonist.”
Aiken straddled his mother’s vision of him as an artist and his father’s fear for him in an unfamiliar world. A housekeeper for millionaire families in Evanston, she also had a special gift. He says she was a spiritual healer, teaching her precocious son to intensely examine both people and nature. An accident left Aiken color-blind. His mother taught him to identify shades of colors with apples—one green and one red, with a red rose in the middle.
Three things about Ta-coumba Aiken
“I assume my mother had put these in my head or helped me to learn how to identify them,” says Aiken. “She taught me what red and green were with an apple. Green apples, red apples. We also had a trellis with a rose garden. Things had different textures, different appearances in light. That’s how I learned to tell color. She kept me in the garden with her to learn.
“She gave me a quill pen and ink and sat me down at the kitchen table and let me draw all through supper. And as I drew, the lines would spread out where it was wet and [create] depth of field. I could see down as if I was looking down into a nest, looking through baskets. And I kept drawing that way.
“Here I am coming up in 1952 and on. And he’s watching this and seeing me drawing all the time. And so, at 6 years old, he said, ‘No, this has got to stop.’”
Aiken’s father was at the trash with his son’s artwork when his mother got home and rescued his paintings. His best friend’s aunt, an artist in Chicago, attended the “exhibit” of artwork on display in the Aikens’ basement. The woman burst into tears and immediately added zeroes to the price tags on all his “priceless” works—1 cent became $10, 5 cents became $50. He made $657.36 in sales in three days.
“My mother helped me figure out color, but my dad helped me with the materials,” he says. “My father had a deep fear. But at the same time, he saw what I could do. When he picked up garbage at the big department stores like Woolworth’s, he remembered those paint-by-number kits that they would have, and kids steal paints from the sets. So, they’d throw them away. My dad could have just let those go to the dump, but he brought the damaged sets home.”
As Aiken’s talent grew, so did opportunity—a chance to teach classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at 16, invitations to prestigious events like the International Design Conference in Aspen, taking pre-law classes at Yale to please his father. But his talent got swept up in the times: Unintentional clashes with Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention led him to explore the struggle of Blacks in the diaspora, stolen, scattered, and displaced. Aiken moved to Minneapolis and studied at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. But it wasn’t until his mother’s death and a trip to Africa in 1977 that all the pieces of his work began to take direction.
“I knew something was coming,” he says. “The only thing I could do was my art. And when my mother passed, something changed in my art that was still kind of representational, but there were all kinds of things floating in the background and squiggly lines and people.
“But I had to get out of the U.S. I couldn’t handle it that my mother passed. I was working at Honeywell as a graphic designer, and I did a lot of illustration things outside so our people’s faces could be seen on things. There was a call for artists to submit work to go to the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. I was the only Black Minnesotan to enter. Even though I submitted with Seitu [Jones] and others at the African American Cultural Arts Center, I wasn’t in the ‘in crowd.’ So, they laughed at me. It was literally, ‘See? You think you’re so smart.’ But I got a call from Dr. Jeffrey Donaldson at Howard University. And when he called he said, ‘We want you to come to the Festac ’77,’ I hung up on him.” He laughs. “Because I’m like, ‘These fools are just messin’ with me!’ Then the phone rang again, he tells me his name again and says, ‘Do not hang up on me again; otherwise an opportunity will be lost.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, sir!’”
Photo by Tom Dunn
Aiken’s New World Order #2 triptych, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 36″
Aiken joined a talented group of Black American artists that are famous today: Betye Saar, jazz futurist Sun Ra, scholar Lerone Bennett Jr., and poet Don L. Lee, today known as Haki Madhubuti.
It was that experience that led Aiken to develop his path of Superlative Realism—evaluating the ancient symbols woven deeply into the fabric of Black life to expand and heal our condition. Channeling ancestral symbols, Aiken paints geometric shapes that rise and loop into heads and hands keeping time to ancient drums. But he says the emotional trauma the Twin Cities experienced in 2020 reverberated throughout centuries. The past reached into the present—recently, Aiken’s conjured his dancing images into bodies rhythmically locking step, the hands of the forefathers turning into 21st-century fists of solidarity, uniting into one.
“This will be when I’m doing these sculptural things for the Guggenheim proposals,” he says. “It’s called No Words—Descended of Giants. I’ve taken something that’s recent with George Floyd’s murder and what I named that piece, and then I had Descended of Giants, which my mother told me on her death bed that I was part of. And now these two are going to rise into something that will be interesting.”
A projection into our future? Yes—that is, if Aiken saw himself as a futurist.
“I’m a time traveler!” he says gleefully. “So, how am I going to be an Afrofuturist if I go back and forth all the time?” But he suddenly turns serious. “Slaves were brought here. But we never gave up. We saw our future because it was revealed in the past. The universe out there, that’s ours. That’s where [Black people] came from. I think we’ve always been. This planet, we were put here to create it. We have to do more. We see it. We feel it. It can’t be denied.”
by Robyne Robinson
August 28, 2022
Sign up for our daily newsletter.
The arts and entertainment blog. Read more
© Key Enterprises LLC
All rights reserved
Key Enterprise LLC is committed to ensuring digital accessibility for mspmag.com for people with disabilities. We are continually improving the user experience for everyone, and applying the relevant accessibility standards.