Black Columbus Photographer, Kojo Kamau Passes Away

The famous Black Columbus photographer and artist was an adjunct professor at Columbus State until his demise at age 77.

The Black Columbus photographer, Kojo Kamau, known for his black-and-white pictures of famous African-American figures and for documenting the local African-American community, has died at age 77, according to the Dispatch.

Kamau died Monday afternoon of an apparent heart attack, said Demetries Neely, executive director of the King Arts Complex and a good friend of Kamau’s.

Kamau’s work, Neely said, is crucial to understanding the African-American experience in Columbus and beyond.

“In his photos are the history of America,” she said. “He has beautiful photos of the civil-rights movement, of presidents coming through Columbus, but then he also documented things in our community, too, that allow us to preserve our history.”

Boxer Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama are among the celebrities photographed by Kamau. Throughout his 50-year career, he also specialized in photos of Columbus street scenes, shops and people.

His photographs have been exhibited at the Columbus Museum of Art, the Chicago Center of Science and Industry, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, among other venues. Some of his work is currently on display in “Kojo: Eyewitness to History,” which continues into May at the National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Wilberforce.

Kamau won numerous awards, including the 2006 Ohioana Library Career Award, 2011 King Arts Complex Legends & Legacies Award and the 2013 Raymond J. Hanley Fellowship award, give by the Greater Columbus Arts Council.

Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, called Kamau’s passing “a hole you can’t fill.”

She said she plans to honor Kamau with a tribute wall at the museum featuring photos and text explaining his importance to the community. She particularly treasured the Black Columbus photographer’s photos of famed Columbus woodcarver and barber Elijah Pierce.

For me, the barber shop lives in those photos. They’re so vibrant and evocative that you really understand the context and environment those great photographs come out of.”

Kamau, who was born in Columbus on Oct. 11, 1939, bought his first camera as a teenager and studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design for three years before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1960.

Four years later, he became a photographer in the medical illustration department at Ohio State University, a job he had — eventually earning the title of chief medical photographer — until 1994.

Kamau also was an adjunct professor at Columbus State from 1997 until his death, although declining health had prevented him from working there for roughly the past year, according to associate professor Gene Strickland, a colleague.

Strickland said Kamau enjoyed working with students at the school’s black-and-white film laboratory.

He had a super-strong work ethic,” he said. “At age 75, he was still showing up, he was never late and never left early. And he was a supernice guy.”

Neely, who said Kamau had a “sharing heart,” emphasized his importance to the Columbus arts scene.

“He was talented beyond compare, but it was his spirit that made him so inviting,” she said. “Every time I saw him, he was the same. He was always kind, and he cared about supporting the arts any way he could. He gave his time and his talent.”

His work has been exhibited around the world, and he is the winner of numerous awards for his work, including the Ohioana Library Career Award and the Raymond J. Hanley Fellowship Award, the Columbus Alive reports.

Columbus artist Queen Brooks said Kamau was a “quiet, gentle man” with a “wonderful spirit.”

Brooks recalled Kamau’s downtown Columbus studio as the place where she, and many other African-American artists, not only created community but were encouraged to pursue their own art.

I was recovering from a bad accident, and I hadn’t been going out. I decided I needed to go out, and I had seen an article in the Columbus Dispatch about his studio, and that he’d been to Africa. I didn’t know artists or anything about art. I was maybe 36, 37 at the time. I would walk over and look in the windows. On maybe the third day he came out and invited me in. I would go over every day and just sit and talk. Finally he said I could work for him. That’s how I got my start. I had my first exhibit there.”

For more than 50 years, Kojo Kamau’s talented  photographic eye provided us a unique glimpse of Columbus neighborhoods and people, celebrities and his many travels around world,” said Tom Katzenmeyer, President and CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. “We are deeply saddened to hear that Columbus has lost another extraordinary member of its arts family.”

In 2014, Kamau’s work was prominently and permanently featured, along with work by artist Larry Winston Collins, in the unveiling of the Long Street Cultural Wall that now reconnects Downtown Columbus and the Near East Side, the Columbus Underground states.

“I first met Kojo a decade ago at the Columbus Arts Festival where he and his wife Pepper were selling photographs of Columbus that he took in the early 1960s,” stated local historian Doug Motz in a feature written about Kamau in 2014. “I was immediately struck by his terrific artwork, his gentle way and his deliberate way of speaking.”

When Motz asked Kamau in 2014 about the photographs and work he would like to be remembered for, Kamau responded:

I’m a simple person and I would like for people to remember to be kind to each other. Everybody’s created equal.

We have indeed lost a great artist and historian; a man who has contributed immensely to the graphical history of our country. Our condolence to the family and friends of the great Black Columbus photographer, historian and artist.

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