He was born shy, and with a different name. Robert Jones was fascinated by pictures in National Geographic as a boy and took photography classes at East High School. But when it came time to take the art seriously he was too timid to interact with strangers. So he shot buildings – they don’t move; they don’t talk back.
The result was a 35-millimeter slide presentation about the city’s history, particularly the downtown neighborhoods near his workplace, for a course at the Columbus Art School (now CCAD). The project, completed in 1959, was a starting point for one of the principal arcs of his career – recording people of African heritage in kinder light.
“In the 1960s, I realized there was a lack of documentation of what was going on in our community in a positive way,” he said.
He balanced his role as Ohio State’s chief medical photographer with freelance work. He often took pictures of speakers like Maya Angelou and Alex Haley when they made stops at OSU, and he documented African American protests and marches. He also gained popularity at art festivals for his travel photography.
He changed his name to Kojo (“unconquerable”) Kamau (“quiet one”) in 1970 because he wanted people to know immediately that his work was by someone of African descent. In 1978, he traveled to his ancestral continent to photograph the people of the African Diaspora, setting out to capture an understanding of where African Americans come from culturally and to debunk the stigmas of their homeland.
In 1979, he founded Art for Community Expression with his late wife, Mary Ann Williams. The nonprofit organization helped bring African American art into public consciousness because Columbus had no venues for it. ACE also provided funding to any black artist who wanted to travel to Africa, and the couple helped raise enough money to send renowned local artist Aminah Robinson as the first beneficiary.
His career came full circle in the years after the 9/11 attacks when he realized that people wanted less travel photography and sought something closer to home, something nostalgic. He created his Columbus Remembered series, based on sets of photos he took in 1960 – the buildings, the neighborhoods – juxtaposed with new pictures of the same locations in 2006. The pictures exhibit how the neighborhoods used to be, when doctors and teachers and custodians lived next door, before annexation and freeways changed the physical landscape and people moved to the suburbs.
“I think part of the problem now is we don’t think about living together. We just think about our own individual self,” Kamau said. “I love to see crowds of people working together and thinking and solving problems. You can’t solve problems by yourself.”
One such affected neighborhood is the traditionally black King-Lincoln district, where Kamau collaborated with Larry Winston Collins on the visual design for the new Long Street Cultural Wall, which acts as an artistic journey through the neighborhood’s past alongside the bridge that reconnects the Near East Side.
The Lincoln Theatre stands a block away, a venerable landmark Mayor Michael B. Coleman has made the cornerstone of the area’s revitalization. At the end of July, Kamau and Robinson were inducted into the theater’s Walk of Fame for their lifetime contributions to the arts. Kamau said that the theater, and all the arts, plays a central role in breathing new life into downtrodden neighborhoods – it’s how we document our culture.
“It creates a better understanding of who we are, and where we come from, and how we all can live together.”
For more information about Kamau, visit