Public art as social activism: Ta-coumba Aiken creates art that heals the heart and soul

Ta-coumba Aiken grew up in Evanston, Illinois during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the Black Panther Party and Black Power, and the prominence of the NAACP’s civil rights activism – “all these different groups of African Americans that were trying to have a voice in how we should move forward,” he remembers. “In all of these things I would see community activism but I didn’t know what it was called. It was just called breathing then.”

At 52 years old, Aiken has had a storied career as an artist and arts advocate, a career that began when he was just six years old when he showed his first exhibition in his parents’ basement.

“I realized in my twenties or thirties when I started doing a lot of residencies that I kept referring back to my first exhibition ever,” Aiken recalls. He says his father was a good man, but also a practical one. He was a garbage man; his mother was a housecleaner. Young Aiken wanted to be an artist, and his father was eager for him to do anything but that.

“He had my stuff and was ready to throw it in the garbage can. My mother caught it right before it went in and my mother asked in a really sweet and wonderful way, because he just melted at the sound of her voice, if I could do an exhibition.”

His father was only trying to help; he didn’t want his son to struggle through life as a starving artist. But he agreed to let Aiken show an exhibition of his work in his hand-built rec room, a room where Aiken and his brother were rarely allowed. “There were all kinds of hand-made woodworking from dad [in there]. He might have not wanted me to go forward [with my art] because he had wanted to do that himself as a kid and he didn’t want me to go through the same hurt.”

Aiken made flyers for the show. His teachers passed them around to other schools, and his mom passed them around at work. On the first evening of the three-day exhibition, a line formed down the street and around the block while the family had their supper. One woman begged to be let in early because she had to head to Chicago that night; when she came upstairs she was crying, saying, “His work is magnificent.” “Boy was that a fuel-injected phrase!” Aiken laughs.

At the end of the three days, after Sunday supper, his father took Aiken down to the rec room to count all the money they had collected in a cigar box. “Dad says, ‘Well son, there seems to be some people interested so we should see if you made any money.’ He told me to open the box but my hands were too sweaty. This was life or death for me!”

The box was filled with coins and paper bills for a grand total of $657.36. “He told my mother he didn’t want me to starve because you can’t make any money at this, and here I had a box of money,” says Aiken. “I think when he turned his head he was either smiling or teary. I said, ‘Dad?’ He looked at me. ‘Can I do my art?’ And he looked at me and stared at me and said, ‘Yes, and you can pay for your own damn law school.'”

Aiken remembers all of the different people who came to visit over those three days, people of all different ages and races and socioeconomic backgrounds. “All these different people from all these different walks of life made it possible for me to do my art for the rest of my life,” he says. “That’s when I realized art wasn’t in the gallery: it was in the streets. It was in the clothing people made and the music people made and the [signs on buildings]. That was my first ah-ha moment. I’ve had a few since then!”

Since then Aiken’s career as an artist has been filled with ah-ha moments. He has created public art in collaboration with schools, neighborhood organizations, and city planning and development departments. “In the ’70s I started doing murals. One person pays for it but then hundreds of thousands of people can see it. One piece of artwork touches thousands of lives.”

His art has taken him around the world, including the 2nd World Black and African Cultural Arts Festival (FESTAC) held at the National Nigerian Museum in Lagos, Nigeria as part of the international group exhibition in 1977. This was another ah-ha moment. “I had the mindset that I wanted to do better for the community,” he says. “After going there and seeing what my people have been doing for centuries…when I came back I was different. I’m colorblind but when I came back I ‘saw’ color. After that I as unstoppable.”

Throughout his career he has worked as an illustrator/graphic designer for Honeywell, which led to him designing posters for an NAACP conference, which led to him curating an exhibit for Black History Month, which led to him curating exhibits for the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center that examined the relationship between African Americans and Jews as well as a whole show dedicated to Black Native Americans. “I take opportunities as they come,” he says. “I really wasn’t trying to do anything that made me [a bigger name], but the things I would do would lead to [other opportunities].”

His work naturally evolved into art activism, addressing social justice issues like racial inequity, housing development, civil rights, gender inequity, and Black studies. Even in his earliest days as an illustrator and graphic designer, he used his art to represent people who were underrepresented, focusing on Afrocentric themes. “I was using art as a way to bring attention to things, which later became known as ‘activism’ when the term came along.”

In 1997 Aiken teamed up with his mentor Dr. John Biggers, one of the top African American artists in contemporary history, on a public mural called Celebration of Life, a massive mural located on a highway retainer wall that was later torn down. Aiken is now working on another mural project in the same spirit and practice as that one, selecting and training a group of African American artists on how to create public art.

Aiken is also currently working in Bloomington with a group called Creative Community Builders, a team of consultants, researchers and planners dedicated to helping communities through engagement and problem-solving. He has served on numerous committees, including the public art and design committee for the Minneapolis light rail. He hosts community engagement workshops dealing with diversity and celebrating similarities. He is also a long-time resident of the Lowertown Lofts Artist Cooperative in Saint Paul.

Ultimately, Aiken is a painter, an illustrator, a graphic artist, a muralist, a lecturer, a curator, an arts advocate, and a community collaborator. He works with ink, paint, glass, metal, wood, clay, ceramics, and landscaping materials. He has achieved a career as an artist through grants and fellowships, exhibitions, commissioned works, speaker workshops and other collaborations. His work spans several decades, disciplines, and mediums. “My thing was having all these different outlets so people can see me and I can see them,” he explains. “I create my art to heal the hearts and souls of people.”

He feels that the future of art is not in what gets stored and displayed inside museums, but in what is available for all the public to see and enjoy. “I don’t know what the future of art is, but it should be in the communities. I want my art to be relevant in how it makes somebody feel.”