‘A shining moment’: ACE Gallery’s lasting legacy on Black art in Columbus
Artists and advocates remember photographer Kojo Kamau’s beloved nonprofit arts space that paved the way for other galleries and launched the careers of some of the city’s best-known Black artists
People gave Richard Duarte Brown all sorts of reasons he couldn’t be an artist. “Everything has been done before,” they said. “You have to live in New York if you want to be an artist,” they told him. “And besides, you’re too shy.”
“I wasn't shy. I stopped talking because you're telling me I can't be who I know I am,” Brown said.
Brown came to Ohio to live with his brother at age 13, determined to be an artist. In his teenage years, he would visit the Columbus barbershop of wood carver Elijah Pierce, who would later become an internationally known folk artist. But it wasn’t until Brown was married with kids that he found a place he could truly call his artistic home: ACE Gallery.
In the late 1980s, Brown worked as a screen printer at night and promoted his art to galleries during the day, eventually connecting with beloved folk artist Smoky Brown, who took Duarte under his wing and brought him to ACE — Art for Community Expression — a nonprofit gallery founded by photographer Kojo Kamau and his wife, Mary Ann Williams, that launched Downtown in 1979 and moved to the Short North in 1986. Smoky and Kamau sensed Duarte’s insatiable hunger to make art, and rather than encouraging him to get a degree and come back in a few years, they validated him and helped him find his way as an artist.
“Kojo and all those guys just took me in,” Brown said. “ACE made you feel like family.”
Over the years, ACE helped Brown develop his unique artistic voice; recently, the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) and Columbus Museum of Art selected him for the 2022 Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship. And Brown is not an outlier. Many of the city’s best-known Black artists — legendary figures such as Robinson, Pierce, Smoky Brown, Queen Brooks and others — got their start at ACE during a time when most exhibition spaces didn’t show Black art.
ACE was an anomaly: a Black-owned gallery and community gathering place for artists who had been shut out of galleries and museums. “To create good, meaningful, impactful art, artists need to be free. To be free, they need to be able to create and present in places that allow them to be themselves,” said Scott Woods, a cultural critic (and Alive columnist), poet and the owner of Streetlight Guild, an East Side art space that local artists point to as carrying on the legacy of ACE. “It is vital that Black artists have places where they can not only show their work but create work and sell work.”
ACE closed its doors about 20 years ago, and its founding couple is now gone. But the lasting mark it left on the local arts scene is still front of mind for some of the city’s longtime arts advocates, who speak in hushed tones of the gallery’s accomplishments and the welcoming, inspiring community it fostered, none of which would have been possible without the humble leadership of a quiet kid from Bronzeville.
Born Robert Jones Jr. in Columbus in 1939, Kojo Kamau grew up on the East Side, not far from the Main Library, where he would look through issues of National Geographic and envy the continent-hopping photographers in its pages. Often, on his way to the library, Kamau would walk through the Columbus Museum of Art, initially because the building had a water fountain. Staring at the artwork as he strolled by, Kamau never dreamed he’d one day see his own photos on the museum walls.
A schoolmate of Aminah Robinson, Kamau took his first photography class at East High School and graduated in 1957, then enrolled in CCAD for a time while working odd jobs, such as washing test tubes at a children’s hospital lab. He talked his way into a job taking photos for Columbus-based African American newspaper The Ohio Sentinel before joining the Air Force in 1960 and editing the base newspaper in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where he faced traumatic discrimination.
“Things didn't add up. I'm joining the Air Force to defend a country that won't even let me go across the street and get in the ocean. I can get a gun and go to Vietnam, but I can't go across the street,” Kamau said in a 2015 conversation with longtime Columbus arts advocate Bettye Stull, which was documented by local arts patron Roy Gottlieb. “I didn't have any pictures of down South because I didn't want to remember those four years.”
Before coming home to Columbus in 1964, Kamau married, then later divorced in 1970, the same year he traded his birth name for an African moniker: Kojo, meaning “unconquerable,” and Kamau, “quiet one,” in Yoruba. Throughout the ’70s, Kamau became more serious about photography and his mission to document Black life. He also got a job working as a medical photographer at Ohio State, where he met his second wife, Mary Ann Williams, a poet, actress and professor of theater and communication in the Black studies department who hosted a WOSU TV show, “Afromation.”
Kamau would take the publicity photos for “Afromation” guests, including Black celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Alex Haley. Other photos of prominent figures required more ingenuity and hustle, like the time Kamau went to the Downtown Lazarus department store on his OSU lunch break to photograph Ray Charles, who was selling shirts for Pepsi. But Kamau also turned his lens on local life, shooting a now-famous series of portraits of Elijah Pierce in his barbershop.
In 1978, Kamau opened Kojo Photo Art Studio at 90 N. Washington Ave., around the corner from Pierce. That summer, he and Williams made their first trip to Africa, traveling to Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt, and returning home with a whole new understanding of art, culture and history. "On the way back from Africa, I said to Mary Ann, ‘You know, any artist who wants to go to Africa should be able to go to Africa.’ And I said, ‘Aminah should go to Africa,’” Kamau said in 2015. “When we got home, I showed Aminah some of the photographs and told her she needed to go to Africa.”
Kamau put together a group to secure funds for Aminah’s Africa trip, and in the process he and Williams set about creating a nonprofit entity, Art for Community Expression, which launched in 1979 with a five-member board of trustees and a dual-pronged mission of sending artists to Africa and providing opportunities for African Americans to exhibit their work in months other than February. “I was kind of influenced by the Harlem Renaissance,” Kamau said. “If that can happen there, why can't we do something here like that?”
“When we started that board, we were in the second floor of the [Washington Avenue] building, caddy corner from the Columbus Museum of Art. And it was cold! I remember being huddled up there with a space heater,” said Patricia Williams, one of ACE’s original board members who worked at OSU. “Kojo gathered us all together and asked each of us to be that permanent advocate for African American art and artists. ... Locally, nothing was really happening. So Ace provided the portal for that to start happening.”
“I think because it was a Black-owned space, we felt comfortable coming to it,” said Linda Fleming-Willis, another founding board member. “There weren't other places where you could go to be embraced, to walk in and see art that reflected you on the walls.”
ACE’s first board also included Ursel White Lewis, considered Columbus’ first Black arts patron. The working-class owner of a hat shop, Lewis was a mentor to Kamau and donated Black art to the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus State and other Ohio arts institutions. “[Lewis’] advocacy was the precursor to Kojo realizing that we needed a more permanent entity to focus on the works of African American artists,” Williams said. “And not just the national and internationally known artists, but the local artists, because, quite frankly, they were not being shown here. They weren't even acknowledged and recognized as part of the pantheon of artists that came out of this community.”
Through ACE, Kamau began to play the mentor role, encouraging artists such as Queen Brooks, who read about Kamau in the newspaper. “I didn't know of any Black photographers or artists really at all, so I decided that I would go by his place. But I had no prior experience with art. I went to his place three times and just looked in the window,” Brooks said. “The third time he came out and said, ‘Why don't you come in?’ And I said, ‘Because I don't have any money.’ And he said, ‘Well, you don't need money to look at art.’ So I went in, and that was the beginning of my art career, because I went back every day to talk to him and look at the art, and I started to meet other artists from the Black community.”
“Everyone Kojo would interact with, he would acknowledge them and show them respect — anyone. It didn’t matter if you were a bag person,” said local artist Pepper Johnson, who would become Kamau’s companion later in life, after Mary Ann Williams died unexpectedly of an aneurysm at age 46 in 1991.
ACE Gallery’s first exhibition on Washington Avenue featured the wood carvings of Elijah Pierce, whose work would later end up in the Columbus Museum of Art, as would Kamau’s photos of the famed folk artist. “You were the person responsible for the museum learning about the artists,” Stull told Kamau in 2015, also crediting the late Denny Griffith, former CCAD president and onetime deputy director of the museum. “Elijah Pierce showed at ACE, and he came to the attention of the museum as a result of being at ACE.”
While curating a show of work by Black CCAD students, Kamau met Larry Winston-Collins, who was in his last year at the college studying industrial design and advertising but drawing and painting in his free time. “It actually was the spark for starting off my whole career as an exhibiting artist. Being able to showcase your work like that was something I hadn't really considered,” said Collins, who now lives in Cincinnati after recently retiring from teaching art at Miami University.
Before meeting Kamau, Collins had only seen the work of one Black artist: Pheoris West, who exhibited at Ohio State. “I didn't know Smoky or Aminah or Elijah Pierce, and his barbershop was right around the corner from where I was going to school,” Collins said. Later, Collins became the third artist to travel to Africa through ACE, preceded by Robinson and Charles Dillard. Watching African craftspeople work and internalizing their designs and motifs forever changed the way Collins approached his art. “It inspired me to be the artist that I am today.”
After three years on Washington Avenue, ACE was forced to relocate, but instead of finding a new building right away, the gallery became nomadic, hosting shows and events at libraries, churches and the Columbus Model Neighborhood Facility on East Broad Street before landing permanently in a Short North building known as the Body Shop at 772 N. High St. in 1986.
While the Short North of the ’80s was far removed from the glitzy arts district of today, ACE benefited from the popular monthly Gallery Hop nights that had begun in 1985. During ACE’s first Gallery Hop, Kamau said more people came to the gallery in one night than had visited the other locations in an entire year. While the Washington Avenue space rarely benefited from foot traffic, the Short North location regularly exposed ACE to people from different walks of life.
To serve curious passersby, ACE always had a pot of coffee brewing. “People would peek in the windows of the gallery and discover ACE Gallery just because they were walking around in the Short North,” Williams said. “We’d say, ‘Come on in, have a cup of coffee. Let me tell you about this exhibit. Let me tell you about this artist.’”
ACE’s profile grew and became a respected destination for African American art in Columbus, along the way collaborating with other institutions such as Ohio State’s Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center, whose director, Larry Williamson, became ACE’s curator and chairman of its board for a time, serving as a link between what Kamau referred to as “community artists” and “academic artists.”
“Many artists wanted to show their artwork at Ohio State University, but they didn't have a vehicle to get in there, so being curator of the exhibits here at Ohio State was pivotal when I was with ACE Gallery,” Williamson said, noting the way ACE exhibited established artists as well as emerging artists like Richard Duarte Brown. “We were giving artists the opportunity to show their work in a gallery when nobody was taking a chance on them. ACE said, ‘We don't need anybody to validate you. We're going to validate you.’”
Things weren’t always easy at ACE. The nonprofit depended on grant money from GCAC, the Ohio Arts Council and other organizations, which funded gallery managers (or “sitters”) who staffed ACE during the week, including LaVern Brown (wife of Smoky), Riccardo Davenport and others. But money was tight. Kamau recalled not having enough funds to pay LaVern on time, instead gifting her and Smoky a black van he’d bought from Denny Griffith. “Everyone knew when Smoky was around by that van,” Kamau said in 2015. “No other van in town looked like Smoky's van.”
Having gallery sitters also allowed Kamau to step back from the day-to-day operations of ACE and defer leadership to others. “He was humble,” Williams said. “He articulated his vision, but he never let it overtake him. He was always a part of what was happening, but he didn't step above it. He didn't see himself as anything but a facilitator.”
ACE also expanded its outreach into the community, including programs for children. “We did seminars and workshops for kids on the weekend,” Fleming-Willis said. “Many of those parents had never been into ACE before, and their kids got an education on what African American and Black art was about. And it helped spawn pride.”
Kamau also understood that no matter how hard he tried, some people wouldn’t come to a gallery. So ACE brought art to the people through Afro Fair, an outdoor art festival held at Mt. Vernon Plaza. Artists such as Robinson, Brooks, Smoky Brown, Roman Johnson, Ed Colston, Walt Neil and others would set up booths alongside dancers and drummers. And while it provided an opportunity to introduce the community to Black art and artists, it also grew out of necessity.
“In those early years of the Columbus Arts Festival Downtown, it was very small … and African Americans weren't invited to be a part of the festival. So, as a result, we had Afro Fair,” Stull said. “And it was incredible. We duplicated what they had Downtown. We had our programs, our display areas, our vendors — we had everything.”
In the mid- to late-’90s, ACE’s influence began to diffuse. “People like Aminah and Elijah Pierce and other artists started getting a little bit more recognition and started doing things outside of ACE,” Collins said. “I know for myself, I did a lot of shows at ACE, and it was like, OK, do I keep showing at ACE or should I move on to other places, too? So I started moving on.”
Fortunately, Columbus had gained more galleries where Black artists could show their work, namely the Hale Center at OSU, the King Arts Complex on the East Side (where Stull was curator until 2004), the Shot Tower Gallery at Fort Hayes and the William H. Thomas Gallery on Bryden Road in Olde Towne East, all four of which are still in existence today (in addition to Black Art Plus on Parsons Avenue). Kamau and Stull were also part of the Eastside Arts Initiative, which exhibited work at Broad Street Presbyterian Church.
In 1997, Kamau began to focus more time and energy on his role as a photography instructor at Columbus State. Not long after the gallery’s 20th anniversary in 1999, ACE closed its Short North location, but the group continued to occasionally put on exhibitions around the city, including 25th and 30th anniversary shows.
On Dec. 12, 2016, after receiving countless awards and honors for his photography and arts advocacy, Kamau died at the age of 77.
Today, Stull draws a direct line from the work of ACE to the next generation of Black-owned art spaces, such as Scott Woods’ Streetlight Guild and Maroon Arts Group, which recently purchased the historic Pythian Temple building in the King-Lincoln/Bronzeville neighborhood. “I like to say we passed the torch to them, and they're taking it and running,” Stull said. “I expect a lot of great things to happen as a result.”
Richard Duarte Brown now teaches kids all over the city and mentors up-and-coming artists such as Donte Woods-Spikes the way Smoky Brown played that role for him. Sometimes he secretly refers to Streetlight Guild as “ACE II.” “The people behind the space, if their hierarchy doesn't allow small people to feel a part of it, it disenchants you,” said Brown, who exhibited at Streetlight’s inaugural show. “Scott's hierarchy is the kind of hierarchy that ACE had. They made the common person feel as important as the big person.”
Woods, for his part, is careful to note that the existence of more Black-owned art spaces, as well as galleries and museums that are more welcoming to Black artists, does not mean the mission has been accomplished. (“There's more artists of color on the outside of buildings than on the inside of buildings,” he said.) But ACE played a crucial role in the ongoing movement to recognize and celebrate Black art in Columbus.
“I am so proud of what we did in that moment. I believe that ACE sowed the seeds of progress that are happening right now in terms of African American artists,” Williams said. “It was a wonderful, shining moment.”