A Cultural Legacy Carved in Wood
by D. Amari Jackson
He is simply known as “Baba Atu”, yet there is nothing simple about knowing him, given his vast life experience, his 80 years of accumulated wisdom in the realms of history, philosophy, music, and art. It is a wisdom Atu shares freely, for those who seek, be it in seasoned observations or poetic aphorisms, in keen insights or mystical musings.
“I think I was placed here to be an example to anyone who considers himself a child of the universe, and who is living, developing and learning,” proclaims Atu, clarifying that “by all means, I am here serving.” Clad in African garb and perched in a chair in the center of a rented studio at the ArtsXchange in East Point, Georgia, he is surrounded by a bevy of intricate wood carvings of all dimensions. Though his speech patterns have slowed from a stroke sustained three years ago, the elder compensates by enunciating deliberately. “I was the one who was placed here to be the helpmate for your growth to the next step.”
A world-traveler, master percussionist, drum maker, and sculptor versed in the artistic traditions of western Africa, Atu’s many wooden carvings depict scenes of African culture, each piece, he notes, offering “its own unique story.” Combining his passion for music and visual art—along with the drums, he plays saxophone, piano, flute, and other instruments—Atu has carved hundreds of sculptures from oak, ebony, mahogany, and other woods, maintaining over 300 in his personal collection, 200 of them drums. The volume and variety of his sculptures reflect his range of experiences in a life devoted to artistic expression, personal development, and communal uplift. A man of his era, Atu lived through and was influenced by such historical watersheds as the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements. A half-century back, the talented instrumentalist recorded with world-renowned musicians like saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra while touring under the stage name, “Black Harold.”
Undoubtedly, the emphasis is on the Black, in its larger, diasporic context as Atu has been known to promote the beauty of the Black woman as “lovely, curvilinear, and intuitive” while lamenting the programmed self-hate crippling our community. “We won’t build the quality that is us” he offers, because our oppressors have shamed us as ‘big-lipped, funny-looking, and short-haired with big rumps.’ But that’s not a judgement, it’s a description.”
“And I happen to like that.”
Perhaps, for all his life experience, the most singular term to capture such a multifaceted being is culture. For Atu is culture incarnate, a sage soothsayer whose regal countenance, majestic demeanor, and African-centered perspective harkens to a time when we, as a community, aspired to reclaim our collective identity and shed the skewed, dominant narrative crippling us to finally see ourselves, as ourselves, as if for the first time. That said, given his recent health crisis and progressing age—and a contemporary world where proximity and cohesion are significantly compromised—some wonder if Atu’s legacy can inspire other young culture-bearers like him, or if it will wither into a mere cultural remnant from a bygone era.
“The feeling is that our children and grandchildren have abandoned or forgotten their history,” says Tafawa Hicks, an Atlanta-based photographer who, after meeting Atu three years ago, began organizing his sizable inventory and campaigning for a studio to house it. “But we have a legacy that we build on, and I think it does a disservice when we forget or feel that our history and legacy is outdated,” contends Hicks. “I guess it goes back to we all belong to the same tree, but the branches have forgotten their roots. And without the roots, you really can’t last very long.”
Like buried roots, no one can see a sculpture either—at least, initially, except for the artist—given it is a process based not in addition but subtraction, in stripping away to reveal what was there all along. “Most of these big pieces were one solid block of wood when I first started,” explains Atu. “You’re continuing to carve, to go in deeper. And if you take too much away, you can’t put it back.” He points to several giant faces, sunrays, and images of lions staring back at him before focusing on an intricately carved, midsized piece combining progressive, spiraling scenes with rich natural imagery. “That’s the seven principles of nature,” he reports, noting “I never tell anybody what those seven principles are because I am not teaching theology and I want them to add what they know to these seven things that are general characteristic of everything in this universe—seven basic colors, seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world.”
On occasion, Atu has also been known to compare himself to the numerous lions he has sculpted over the years. The similarities are apparent—his endurance, proud disposition and, given their territorial habit of living together in groups or prides, his focus on community. Though no longer the muscle-bound, frontline warrior coiled to pounce upon any outside threat, the senior now represents the composed, throne-bearing monarch more able to dismantle his enemies with his acute profundity than razorlike claws.
Fittingly, the lions were there from the beginning. Born August 10, 1940 in Birmingham, Alabama under the astrological sign of Leo, Atu’s family relocated to Chicago where the nine-year-old was inspired to sculpt on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago Museum where two massive bronze lions frame the building’s front steps.
“I just knew,” offers Atu, recounting how his uncle used to drop him off at the museum for hours at a time. “I didn’t even want to go inside,” he recalls. “I just wanted to sit down and look at them. Oh boy.” Atu insists their detailed form, musculature, and stature was the “most magnificent thing I had ever seen in my life.”
At age 10, while taking piano lessons encouraged by his musical mother, the self-taught artist carved a five-inch, three-dimensional sculpture of a Black family with three children from the wood of a peach tree using an X-acto knife. Atu would continue to sculpt prolifically for seven decades and, according to him, has produced an estimated 2500 pieces, most in wood and some in clay and other materials. While acknowledging he has given away a significant amount of his works to family and friends over the years, others are more focused on housing his remaining pieces and preserving his valuable legacy given his recent health crisis.
“He really didn’t have anybody looking out for him,” says Hicks, who “took it upon myself to help the brother through the whole hospital thing, rehab, and getting him back into his apartment.” Characterizing himself as “a helper by nature,” the photographer first heard of the talented senior in a 2017 radio interview and, soon after, arranged to take pictures of Atu’s work at an art exhibit. “The very next day he had a stroke,” recounts Hicks. “So, I went from just photographing his work to helping him through this crisis.” In the process, he got permission to go into Atu’s storage unit and was “shocked by all of the stuff he had.” Hicks accessed his apartment as well, which “was really a mess because he, apparently, had been sick for a while and just wasn’t taking care of anything. He had a lot of work there also. And that’s when I really got interested in his work.”
After overseeing his recovery, Hicks has since devoted himself to securing a studio to store Atu’s work and promote his legacy. This past August, he established a GoFundMe campaign to rent a studio space at the ArtsXchange that will enable Atu to “complete several unfinished works, display all of his sculptures in an accessible location, and archive his legacy for future generations.” He also spearheaded the production of a compelling three-minute video with the same goals.
Ultimately, Hicks believes there is great value in preserving the legacy of Atu and his work, as well as the African-centered perspective and communal culture that produced it. Upon acknowledging the need for Atu’s story to be told long after his life on the earthly plane, one could assume the elderly artist and the larger culture he represents are one in the same.
“I understand that it’s a fading thing because we’ve been conditioned to modern times,” reluctantly acknowledges Hicks, noting how modern art and culture are being dominated by money “as opposed to history. It’s difficult for him to see how our children and our grandchildren are forgetting their history and turning their backs on something they may consider primitive or outdated.”
After a pause, Hicks adds, “But that’s what we come from.”
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