SACRAMENTO – Back in February, artist Akinsanya Kambon captivated audiences as he explained his creative process and what motivates his work as part of an exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum.
A month later, the coronavirus pandemic hit and Sacramento joined cities across the globe in shutting down large gatherings and encouraging people to shelter-in-place. The Crocker shut its downtown doors and in doing so, shut down the opportunity for many to see Kambon’s “American Expressions/African Roots” and fully understand its significance. The Crocker is closed through at least April 30. The exhibit, Kambon’s first ever, was to run through July 5, but should the COVID-19 closures extend beyond July, it will not be extended.
“If we were to extend an exhibition, it would create a significant domino effect that impacts other exhibitions months and even years ahead. For this reason, our current and upcoming exhibitions will remain on their original schedules,” shared Crocker spokesperson Karen Christian.
“I’m sorry to say that we will not be able to extend the exhibition of art by Akinsanya Kambon. His art is spectacular and powerful and so very meaningful. It also has the ability to broaden perspectives of humanity and of our world. There is nothing quite like experiencing Professor Kambon’s art in the museum setting, and it breaks my heart that the community isn’t able to explore it and all of our art in person right now, with all of the cultural and emotional enrichment the museum has to offer,” Ms. Christian continued.
Kambon has been creating art for decades and has been a vendor at various events, but this is the first time his work is on display in a museum. He was almost featured at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, but the opportunity died when the museum’s director, artist John Riddle, passed away in 2002 before the exhibit happened.
“I was thinking I wasn’t going to ever get an exhibit in a museum after he died. I figured all my chances were gone,” Kambon shared.
Nearly 20 years later, the Crocker’s Associate Director and Chief Curator Scott Shields approached the former Black Panther. He’d come across his work and was interested in seeing more. After visiting his home in Sacramento, Kambon shares, Shields flew out to Long Beach, where his main studio is housed.
The Crocker, Kambon said, didn’t shy away because of its colorful past. The exhibit opened in February and the artist was featured during the museum’s Black History Month celebration and in an art talk with its Director of Education, Stacy Shelnut-Hendrick.
“They know my history. They know that I was in the Panther Party. They know that I was arrested with the Oak Park Four. They know all that history,” Kambon said.
“That’s why I was really surprised when they gave me that exhibit, but I did some research and I found out how much the Crocker family was involved in the abolitionist movement. I’m talking about the old Crocker, the old man who started that. They fought against slavery.
That’s why I feel so at home at the Crocker. Anybody who’s family history goes back to the abolitionist movement, they were supporters of John Brown and all the other White folks that fought against slavery. I welcomed having an exhibit at the Crocker and I’m proud to be at the Crocker because of that,” he said.
Kambon hasn’t been idle during the COVID-19 shutdown. He’s created more than 100 new pieces.
“I get up every morning, go into that garage and I work until I get exhausted,” he said.
The new works were small, affordable pieces people might want to buy, having seen the larger, more expensive pieces featured in the exhibit.
“I’m looking at the pieces at the Crocker and the range is about $100,000-$600,000,” Kambon said.
He says he’d rather have people get something out of his work, rather than get rich from it himself.
“I don’t even do art for the sale,” he said. “A lot of people think that you ‘do art’ because you’re trying to make a living being an artist. That’s not my purpose. I was making my living when I was teaching at Cal State Long Beach. Art is something that I do for educating our people.
For every piece of artwork, there’s a story and every story with that artwork gives a fantastic history of our people if you look at it and you have to look at it and you have to understand. I’ve travelled to Africa 14 times. I’ve done research with different tribal groups I’ve lived with and I’ve asked people there in Africa questions about what the art means and when I do that, I do the piece and I try to incorporate the stories into the art.
Aside from creating new things, Kambon is revisiting work from his past. He and wife Tama-sha Ross Kambon are putting the finishing touches on a book sharing the “real story” behind a controversial coloring book he illustrated back in 1968. The publication, which featured violent interaction with cops, depicted as pigs and policing the Black community, saw a recent comeback. Kambon says there’s an opportunity to clear up some long-held myths, including ones that it was created by the FBI and its infamous Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro). He says Panther Party leadership “threw him under the bus,” but he went along with the narrative that the project wasn’t endorsed by the group in order to keep law enforcement from undermining the work members were doing in the Black community, including improving student success by providing nourishing meals for poor children.
“It was a book for adults. It was a history book and it wasn’t to be colored. What happened was Cointelpro. I took it to Oakland and Bobby Seale loved it. After it came out, two weeks later it hit the headlines and when it hit the headlines, the FBI said that we were making kids study how to kill pigs before we fed them breakfast. They used that coloring book to attack the free breakfast program.”
People accused Kambon, known as Mark Teemer then, of being an FBI agent. Others thought the FBI had put out the coloring book and mailed it out to White families to scare them.
Kambon says the coloring book warrants conversation, as it deals with the racism and injustice the Black community still faces all these years later.
“That’s the reason it resurfaced after Trayvon Martin got killed. Then we had Eric Gardner, then we had Mike Brown, we had Freddie Grey, we had the little 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and then Stephon Clark. All these things make the coloring book relevant today,” he said.
“The coloring book was reintroduced, but now I think people need to understand what the coloring book does. It’s like a history book.”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
OBSERVER photo by Ken Nelson