A sacred art
See Sacramento artist and former Black Panther Akinsanya Kambon’s terracotta sculptures at Crocker Art Museum
“The hero of vengeance.” That's the meaning of “Akinsanya,” a name that hails from the Yoruba culture of western Africa. It's a name that Sacramento artist Akinsanya Kambon was destined to live out.
But Kambon didn't see himself as a hero.
After discovering his Yoruba ancestry in the late '80s, Kambon wanted to strengthen his connection to his roots by adopting a Yoruba name. But in Yoruba culture, a person needs to be named by the people who know them best. So Kambon gathered his closest friends and family to choose his name, and the rest is history.
“I told them I couldn't accept the name because the people are the heroes, individuals are not,” Kambon said. “They said, ‘Yeah, we figured you were going to say something like that. We're still going to call you Akinsanya.'”
The name stuck over the years. Kambon began signing his work with his new name, and now it appears at the base of dozens of terracotta sculptures, many of which are currently on display at Crocker Art Museum's latest exhibition, American Expressions/African Roots.
For Kambon, the work is more than just sculpture. It's spiritual. But getting to that level of artistic expression was a long journey.
A hero’s origin
Before he was given his Yoruba name, Akinsanya Kambon was a young boy in Sacramento named Mark Teemer. Stricken with polio at age three, he became paralyzed on the left side of his body.
“I used to get teased by the other children. If I'd go out for recess, they'd throw me down and put dirt in my face, and grass on my face,” Kambon said. “Art was a type of therapy for me. I'd use it to combat the psychological abuse that I got from the other children.”
Kambon said he first discovered Crocker Art Museum while playing with friends around the corner from where he attended Lincoln Junior High School.
“We used to play over there in the yard,” Kambon said. “One day a kid said, ‘Let's go inside' … The first thing I saw was these huge paintings. I stopped in my tracks and my mouth dropped open and I was just looking at them. I had never seen anything like that, and the other kids were like, ‘Come on Mark, come on, you're going to get us caught.' I couldn't move.”
From then on, Kambon said he would visit every day. The entry fee in 1950 was 25 cents, and on the days he couldn't afford it, he would try to sneak past the security guard.
In school, Kambon spent all his time drawing, so much that he stopped paying attention in his classes. By the time he graduated high school, he was reading at a second-grade level.
In 1966 he was drafted into the Marine Corps and sent to Vietnam as a combat illustrator. The experience had a lasting effect on him, artistically and psychologically.
“I didn't even know I had PTSD until I met my wife,” Kambon said.
Themes of war influenced Kambon's work; many of his pieces are terracotta sculptures of warriors. Among them, there's “Equestrian John Randall, Buffalo Soldier,” a rendition of Civil War Private John Randall, who was said to have survived an attack by 70 Cheyenne warriors while on a hunting trip.
It was also in Vietnam that Kambon was introduced to the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. But it wasn't until the 1969 Oak Park Riots—sparked after police raided the Black Panthers' Sacramento headquarters—that he became more interested in the organization. Kambon said that during the riots, he witnessed an officer swinging his nightstick at a young girl.
“I saw how the police were treating people, and then the Panther Party asked me to do some drawings,” Kambon said. “Next thing you know, I was in the Black Panther Party.”
While with the Black Panther Party, he drew the infamous “Black Panther Coloring Book,” which contains child-friendly drawings of black men stabbing pigs wearing police uniforms.
In 1970, he was tried and ultimately acquitted in the shooting of a Sacramento police officer in the “Oak Park Four” trial.
Following the trial, Kambon attended classes at Sacramento City College, where he learned the raku technique, a low-firing ceramic sculpture process that causes clay to crack under pressure and produces unique glazes. He used the technique to create the many terracotta sculptures now on display in the museum of his childhood. Only now, he doesn't have to sneak in to see great art.
Channeling the spirits
Kambon graduated from CSU Fresno with a master's of arts in 1976, and in 1984 he began to teach African American Studies at CSU Long Beach. He made several trips to Africa, but it was a 1995 trip to Elmina Castle in Ghana that clarified his work and life as an artist.
Inside what was once one of the biggest stops during the Atlantic slave trade, Kambon began to meditate at an altar where someone had placed candles.
“All of a sudden I heard this female voice say, ‘We've been waiting for you.' And I looked up. It really scared me. And she said, ‘We need you teach our children who was stolen, about our history, about culture and about our religion,' Kambon said.
“That's where I started really getting serious about my commitment to this artwork. And this artwork's purpose is to teach people about African history, African culture and African spirituality.”
When he works on the sculptures, Kambon said he feels as though he is serving as a vessel for a spirit that guides his hands.
One such piece, titled “Nehanda,” depicts Zimbabwean spiritual healer, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, who led her people into battle against European colonizers in 1896. She's shown in a state of grief, palpable anger flashing across her face as a child hangs limply in her arms. A blood-red glaze glistens off the dying child as Nehanda attempts to heal them.
If you asked Kambon, he would tell you that this sculpture contains the spirit of Nehanda. It's not a figure of speech, but a sacred belief that her spirit is literally infused into the piece—making it more than just an object to be bought, sold or owned.
“When you work as close as I do with ancestor spirits, I think to put a price on these things and sell them would be like prostituting your culture,” Kambon said.
His work on display at the Crocker is only a fraction of his extensive work, more than 4,000 sculptures.
“I'm doing this for people to see,” Kambon said. “I wouldn't mind my whole collection being in a museum, because I think it should be.”