On a sunny morning in the fall of 1969, 16-year-old Ta-coumba, who wound up in Minneapolis accidentally, went for a walk in the neighborhood of the Leamington Hotel where he anxiously spent the previous night. He was comforted by the serenity of the park with the large beautiful oak trees and artfully placed benches. The columns and large steps of the museum across from Fair Oaks Park mesmerized him.
Ta-Coumba spent the remainder of the day walking around the neighborhood. He was pleasantly surprised to see black and white people interacting peacefully with each other, and seeing older black couples holding hands as they walked confidently filled Ta-Coumba with joy. He knew then that Minneapolis would be his home. The next day he walked into the short white building next to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, completed an application and gave them the portfolio he had brought from Illinois.
Thirty-eight years later, Ta-Coumba’s works will be preserved by that building with the large columns – Minneapolis Institute of Arts. “This is enormous,” said Ta-Coumba, “and I am most appreciative of the panel that selected me.”
Ta-Coumba was born and grew up in Evanston, Illinois where his brother still lives. He started drawing at age three, and as a third grader at age six he had his first art show in his parents’ basement. His father tried to discourage Ta-Coumba’s obsession with art by threatening to discard his work. It was his mother, a Christian healer, who persuaded her husband to have “an exposition” of their son’s work. With the input of a young Chicago artist, the show was staged. Crowds lined up outside the Aiken’s home waiting for the opening time “after supper.” Ta-Coumba’s first art show garnered $657.36 – of which he was permitted to spend 36 cents and the rest was set aside for college.
Ta-Coumba started working at age 11, and at age 14 he was the manager’s right hand man at Griffin’s Pharmacy. When he graduated from high school at age 16, he left home and set out for Madison, Wisconsin to be part of the lively art scene. When his gas tank was empty he stopped for gas only to discover that he had missed the Madison exit and was in Eau Claire. He asked the gas station attendant for a nearby city with a population with more than a handful of blacks and was directed to Minneapolis.
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Minneapolis College for Art and Design, Ta-Coumba has taught in schools all over the Twin Cities. He was the curator and chair of the African American Cultural Center in the 1970s, and has served on the arts commission for the city of Minneapolis.
Ta-Coumba teaches his students more than the technical components or art. He encourages them to “believe in yourself … because you never know which way the wind will blow. Within your own world, you can create an industry or a business.”
At the heart of Ta-Coumba’s art are most often circles, symbolizing for him an endless quality. “I go through journeys,” he says. Each painting has many layers with large identifiable images and smaller images and each has a story. His story is to “bring peace to this world and to heal this world. It’s not a crazy notion, or a real notion – it’s my notion. My job, just like it was my mother’s job as a healer, is to use my gifts in the best way I can without hurting people.”
Ta-Coumba has a 24-year-old daughter who is a filmmaker, a 19-year-old son who is a musician, a soon-to-be 14-year-old stepdaughter and a 12-year-old stepson.
Museums are a way to pass on culture, and they give opportunities to artists to exist and grow. More than that, they offer a way to bring people together. “Artists are the community,” says Ta-Coumba.
About the writer: Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. This article originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.