Ta-coumba T. Aiken, a longtime fixture of the Twin Cities arts community, has gotten welcome national recognition with the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s announcement this month that he’d be awarded a 2022 Fine Arts fellowship.
Aiken is one of three Minnesotans to receive the award (University of Minnesota professor of American Studies Brenda J. Child and filmmaker Jenny Lion were also was honored).
The recognition comes after decades of Aiken’s work as an activist, educator and artist, whose works pop with primary colors and lines that dance with the polyrhythmic dynamism of jazz and music of the African diaspora. You can almost hear his paintings and sculptural works.
You likely have run across Aiken’s public art works, like the mural outside of Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul, an homage to the Rondo neighborhood, and or on the side of the Victoria Apartments building on Selby. His work has been acquired by the Walker Art Center (currently on view in the exhibition “Five Ways In”), he won a Guinness World Record for the largest Lite-Brite picture when he designed a mural made of 596,000 Lite-Brite pegs in 2013, and he was featured on the commemorative poster for the Minnesota State Fair in 2017. He’s also had numerous grants and fellowships over the years, including from the Bush Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Aiken became interested in painting at the age of 3 and had his first exhibition of art at the age of 6 — out of the basement of his home where he lived with his parents.
He works in a variety of forms — from paintings on canvas to mural work, and sculpture, like his collaboration with Seitu Jones, “Shadows at the Crossroads,” a series of bronze sculptural pieces found on the sidewalk in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Aiken says he’ll use the fellowship to further his explorations in metal enameling, including finding three dimensionality into his process.
The working title for the new body of work, “No Words — Descendants of Giants,” refers to the words Aiken’s mother told him on her deathbed as Aiken turned 20. “I’ve always wanted to explore that more, “ he says. For Aiken, the phrase can mean different aspects of African American culture and history, from musicians, to house workers, escaped slaves and participants in the Great Migration from the South to the North. He’s particularly interested in thinking about how the phrase applies to middle-class African American men. “Because you don’t hear a lot about them,” he says.
Aiken tells me in a phone interview that he didn’t hear the news about the Guggenheim fellowship right away. “They had been trying to contact me, but for some reason I wasn’t looking at my emails,” he says. When he did see an email, he grew concerned it might be a scam.
“I read the president’s letter and I thought, OK, they want some more information because I’m still in the running,” he recalls. “And then I read it and I’m like, this is strange. I’ve never gotten these kinds of questions or directives that they gave me.” Eventually, he gave them a call. “I figured I’d do that, especially when they ask you for your Social Security number,” he said. “I finally realized I might be in the running, and it turns out that I was.”
Like the other finalists, Aiken’s name was submitted to Guggenheim’s board of directors, Aiken says, who then voted to approve the fellows before they are announced.
Aiken says he preferred to wait a month before he received his monetary award. “I wanted to make sure it was real,” he says.
Aiken had previously applied for the award eight or nine times. “I felt like Susan Lucci,” he says, referring to the “All My Children” star who was nominated 21 times for a Daytime Emmy Award, only winning once, after the 19th nomination, in 1999.
Besides the monetary award, Aiken says the fellowship signifies a belief in his work, which allows him to continue to do his work in communities at large. “One of the things was to get more international exposure,” he says. “The notoriety is far more valuable that the money.”
Aiken’s work will be exhibited locally this May at Dreamsong Gallery in Minneapolis. Titled “Awakening,” it’s named after one of the paintings in the exhibition with the same title. “Ta-coumba said in an interview once that his paintings are “recordings of a time traveler’s diary” and for me, that rings very true with ‘Awakening,’” says gallery co-owner Rebecca Heidenberg. “It contains the past, present and future. The painting will be a central focus of the exhibition.”
Heidenberg says that she and her partner, Gregory Smith, plan to publish a catalogue in addition to the exhibition.
“The Guggenheim is wonderful news and I believe that it is just the beginning of Ta-coumba receiving the overdue recognition that he deserves,” Heidenberg says. “Each painting by Ta-coumba Aiken is the seed of an entire cosmos. There is no singular way into them and no single path through them. Every time you stand before one of his paintings, you are taken on a journey that leads to the discovery of new ideas, rhythms, forms, shapes, colors and auras.”