Ta-Coumba Aiken listens to the song of ancestors


There are a thousand voices singing at the Gordon Parks Gallery, where Ta-coumba Aikien's "In the Spirit" exhibition is now on display. The voices are of distant and recent past, calling and responding in the rhythm of dreams. To experience the exhibit is to feel the presence of those voices, hidden amidst the swirls of acrylic paint, camouflaged in the patterns Aiken creates on his sculptured canvases, his painted vases, and a banner that hovers at the back wall like a luminous ghost.

[jump] It is a powerful collection. One that is immediately inviting with its bright colors and playful textures, but which beckons a closer look at what is layered deeper within.  

The entrance of the Gordon Parks Gallery, located on the third floor of Metro State's Library and Learning Center, is framed by two vases, called Reach and Reach II. Their physical structure harkens back to ancient pottery techniques, though their colors suggest a presence that is very much contemporary and alive. Reach is a wide blue vase with blue, yellow, and white brush strokes swirling about in a dizzying pattern. Upon closer look, one can detect faces peering through the bright colors, as if whispering a greeting to visitors. Reach II is a taller, thinner vase with maroon, pink, and blue flowing strokes. A rope crowns the vase at the top, again suggesting an object of ancient utilitarian purposes.  
On either side of the gallery, Aiken has assembled painted canvases together to create a greater shape. On one side, the shape that the canvasses create looks like a figure wearing a robe holding his arms stretched out. The words accompanying this work read: "Future Meeting Mind... Laid Back Joyful Noise Truth & Lies Since Is! Curiosity Radiant Knowledge DNA Hear Say Lineage Make Up Your Mind." Each canvas has it's own unique identity, though they all carry similar attributes of the vibrant, playful dancing of the brush, hints of faces, and sometimes masks peering out through the painting. In some of the canvases, there are animals that lurk behind the patterns. In one piece there even appears to be bars over the orange, black, and white canvas. Perhaps Aiken is suggesting a tiger in cage, or he is making an incarceration metaphor--a casualty of a society that is unequal. One canvas suggests a silhouette of a person, and inside it there seem to be the swirls, shadows, and dreams of the person's ancestors.  
On the opposite wall, the canvases reach across the whole room as if on a journey. The words on this side read: "A Matter of Opinion Protest Out of Nowhere Inheritance- Wisdom Hidden Treasure Ripple Effect Journey for Peace Peek-A Boo." This piece utilizes geometric shapes, painted translucently over the intense patterns below.  

Finally on the big wall hangs an unmounted canvas draped like a flag, with mostly black paint swirling in a pattern that at times becomes clusters of shells and African masks. Called Spirit Journey, the piece punctuates the whole exhibition.  

In the center of the gallery, Aiken provides notebooks where he asks visitors to write what they see in the work, and the answers vary from descriptions of objects and beings--leaves, zebras, flags, etc.--to people expressing immense feeling while viewing the work. "Swirls of living spirits," describes one person. "People traveling together as a whole," writes another. Indeed, each person that sees the exhibit will draw their own narrative out of it. They will see, perhaps, their own story, their own ancestors, their own spirit conversing and communing with all who have come before and all who will come after.  
The Gordon Parks Gallery is located in the new Library and Learning Center on the St. Paul Campus at 645 East Seventh Street. For more info, call