Call and Response: Arts Magazine

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Ta-coumba Aiken: Call and Response

By Tamatha Sopinski Perlman

ST. PAUL ARTIST Ta-coumba Aiken’s new exhibition, “Call and Response” is a celebration of creativity, painting, and community. On view from November 16 through January 13, 2008, Aiken’s work fills the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) Galleries with art he created “to heal the hearts and souls of people and communities by evoking a positive spirit.”

While “Call and Response” is in name a solo endeavor, in spirit it is an expansive call to artists, children, community members, and museum visitors. Aiken “calls” with a barrage of color that meanders and circles around the canvases, creating complex lines that slowly reveal themselves as forms and figures. In Heart Menders, just a small shift of perspective allows one to see faces and hands emerging from these lines. Aiken calls this “spirit writing.” With no specific subject in mind, he lets the paint guide him. Interpretation is unique for each viewer. “Its your world,” Aiken said. “I’m just giving you the map to go with it.”

The paths these maps describe are not the only ways to their destinations. The imagery is not static, even for Aiken, who sees new forms emerge as relationships between paintings and meanings change over time. He said he often discovers something new in a painting, which he hadn’t considered before. Other images, as in the left panel of Call and Response II, integrate what Aiken calls “rhythm patterns”—images that repeat and connect as they leap across the canvas. This is the underlying structure of Aiken’s work. The language of his paintings is maintained through gesture; the lines and patterns come from within, creating a path that develops as it flows. Images emerge from beats that reside deep inside—African traditional beats, dance, and song. “Things that go to the deepest part of your soul are the things I paint,” the artist said.

Aiken’s work resounds in active, collective conversations. Creating murals for corporate offices, grain elevators, and parking ramps, he uses art as a healing device. He has allowed his paintings to be used as posters and flyers—almost any promotional material to bring attention to causes such as AIDS prevention and cure, children’s health, and shelter for the homeless. His self-portraits are not reflections painted from mirrors, but reflections of his commitment to community service. “My story is woven with other people’s lives,” he said. Hundreds of faces bubble and spiral to the surface as they emerge and re-emerge—representing ancestors, family, and friends who touch his life. As an artist, Aiken is always open to new ideas and perspectives. In preparation for this exhibition, he called friends to collaborate with him. The show includes textiles made with Robin Getsug Taple, windows with Seitu Jones and William Slack, paintings with Carei Thomas, and ceramics with Peter Jadoonath. Their integrated responses show how working with others inspires and creates an expanded whole. Aiken hopes the public will respond to the exhibition too.

The collaboration with Jadoonath is an interactive mosaic, allowing visitors to arrange shards of ceramic tiles to make their own collaborations with the artist. There is also an opportunity for visitors to communicate with the artists through the MAEPedia, the MAEP’s Web site that allows users to enter the conversation. Aiken strives to bring fine art to a public arena where viewers can become active participants. His ultimate goal as an artist, teacher, and community activist is to positively affect peoples’ lives. “This is my calling,” he said, “and this is my response.”

Tamatha Sopinski Perlman is MAEP Program Associate at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Citation: Tamatha Sopinski Perlman, "Ta-coumba Aiken: Call and Response," Arts 30, No. 6 (November/December 2007): 14-15.