SF-born artist Keba Konte's career has been nothing short of prolific. He's provided photographs for some of the most influential figures in politics, activism, and hip-hop, and his emotional works involving the use of wood for photomontage were renowned by Oprah herself. That's right, Oprah. See for yourself when the Oakland Art Gallery unveils Konte's exhibit, "888 Pieces of We: A Photo Memoir," which runs from Aug. 8 to Sept. 8. Click 'More' for extended info. --Oscar Pascual
(Oakland, California – May 22, 2008) Sometimes a name can be prophetic. In which case it seems only fitting that the name of renowned artist Keba Armand Konte literally translates to “Father Storyteller” in the Manding language of Western Africa. For a man who is paving the way for a new generation of artistic visionaries, the celebrated Bay Area based photomontage craftsman Keba Armand Konte relishes in creating signature timeless pieces with the technical skill of an assemblage artist and the narrator elegance of a griot. His photographic works of art consist of an amalgam of protests and portraits, street moments and political movements, dignitaries and ditch diggers, hip-hop heads and mothers, continents and cultures as well as freaks, friends and family members. Konte’s artistry is about remembrance - collective, personal, and community. He layers memory and metaphor as he inscribes social conditions, emphasizing love, vulnerability, decay and loss. This vision allows viewers to share the honesty and fearlessness he has found in his subjects trekking the world (Japan, Africa, Cuba, Jamaica and Europe) and within his own community in Northern California.
Konte grew up in the 60’s community of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, inspired by the emerging bohemian subculture that included a mélange of Hippies and Black Panthers, his neighborhood became the background landscape in which to capture protests and generate stories through the use of the lens. The “gift” of photography had been passed down to him by his mother, Pam, at the age of fourteen. Although Konte never had a desire to attend Art School he would go on to study photojournalism and African-American Studies at San Francisco State University and develop his work into an innovative combination of photo-documentary, portraiture, and art photography. During the 1990’s Konte delved into the music industry as a photographer, providing feature magazine spreads in Vibe, Rolling Stone and The Source as well as CD covers/artwork for notable Hip-Hop/R&B artists such as E-40, Goapele, Saul Williams, Master P, The Luniz, Saafir, The Coup and Raashan Ahmad of Crown City Rockers.
His experimental approach to image making led him to the unique photomontage on wood technique, which would later become his vested trademark. The skillful artisan explained that the development of photomontage was a watershed event and this newfound technique inspired him to take pictures of the familiar and re-contextualize each one onto large unconventional wooden surfaces --headboards, dressers, broken drawer bottoms, ironing boards. With only the shadows of the photo left behind, Konte uses paint and a burning technique to cement the image to the surface. The effect is dramatic. Since the transposed image is transparent, the surface of the wood shows through, giving the original photograph the look of an illusion or even a reflection in a pond. “My mother was a photographer and my father a carpenter. This medium allows me the fluidness to manifest the crafts I have been exposed to all my life.”
Much like his father had a gift for reviving old Victorian homes, Konte brings the history of a piece of wood to life, adding layers on top of layers of memory to the surface. These elements have become part of his artistic praxis; collecting materials with DNA. "What I really like is wooden fragments that had a previous life.” Within his classic photomontages Konte has captured the essence of a variety of prominent figures while his art has adorned the homes of spoken word poet Saul Williams, author Alice Walker, ER actor Eriq La Salle, advertising mogul Carol H. Williams and famed novelist/artist/poet/activist Gordon Parks. The residence of choreographer Fatima Robinson was recently featured within Oprah at Home Magazine (Winter 2007) and spotlighted Konte’s classic “Bleu Lady,” a 1992 photomontage of a Senegalese woman.
From the intimacy of his small-scale photomontage works to his spacious room sized installations, his use of multimedia elements reveals layers of the human condition and tells the tales of the places and figures he depicts. More intriguing is the care that Konte puts into his bold, expressive figures. "I like to show beauty in unexpected places," perhaps referring to the piece of a boy ecstatically leaping over a cemetery in Johannesburg, complete with smog and barbed wire. "I strive to give dignity to my subjects." His handcrafted pieces have immortalized epic events such as the Million Man March, Rodney King Riots, South African Elections, Hurricane Katrina and Gulf War protests. In 2001 Konte released the galvanizing Photomontage on Wood (Black Star Express), a book containing 20 color matte finished postcards of his artwork, depicting photographic images of the African Diaspora imbued into found and salvaged wood adorned with paint, gold leaf bees wax as well as other mediums.
In 2007 Konte exhibited ‘88 Pieces of Me’ at the California African-American Museum which included ‘NOLA's Ark: Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans,’ aimed at keeping the memory and reality of Hurricane Katrina alive, featuring a collection of faded, tattered and dyed ironing boards, car seats, and found luggage assembled to resemble the outline of a boat. The ingenuity of this work lay in metaphors as Konte was able to make it seem as if the materials were pulled from some ninth ward home, still massacred and broken from nature and governmental ineptitude. He has collaborated in a tribute exhibition with Emory Douglas, Former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party to create the screen poster serigraphs ‘Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas,’ based on his classic works (1969-1971). Sinful indulgence of the flesh, drug abuse and the price paid for it reigned supreme in Konte’s ‘Bullets and Bibles,’ a mixed-media art piece included in the exhibition ‘Trouble Man,’ paying homage to the legend of Marvin Gaye while he touched on the homicide rate of black families in Oakland with the revolutionary ‘Exodus Movement of Jah People’.
Next up for Konte is his prolific exhibition ‘888 Pieces of We; A Photo Memoir by Keba Konte,’ presented at the Oakland Art Gallery opening August 8th and running through September 8th 2008. The collection consisting of 888 wooden photomontages created throughout his life depicts photographs of world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Artisted w/ Danny Glover, Jessie Jackson, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Gordon Parks and Bobby Seale as well as musicians Lenny Kravitz, Ben Harper, Goapele, Erykah Badu, E-40, Saul Williams, Goodie Mob, Andre 3000 and Big Boi, Master P and vintage 1991 Tupac Shakur. The display, inspired by the fact that Konte was born on the eighth day of the eighth month is also as he explains “The second period of Leo, which is about creativity, leadership, luxury, dominance, drama, warmth, family and love. The number 8 is about power, wealth, and health. In Chinese culture 8 is considered very lucky and is the sign of wealth while the Summer Olympics in Beijing are scheduled to open the same night as my exhibit at 8:08:08 p.m.”
Konte has graced the covers of such prominent Bay Area publications as East Bay Express and City Flight, appeared within the pages of numerous others, featured in journals/books including The International Review of African American Art, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers; 1840 to the Present, Hands by Bernard Dadie and Nueva Luz Photographic Journal. Accolades include the 2006 Alameda County Art Commission Public Art Mural Award, Jack London Square Public Art Awards, SOHO PHOTO Alternative Processes Competition Exhibition Award, The En Foco New Works Photography Award and the prestigious commission to create the artwork for the 2003 Amnesty International/Sierra Club "Defending the Defenders" poster campaign to raise awareness of the human rights of international environmentalists.
In addition to his artistic career Konte is co-owner of the Guerilla art café on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley alongside his wife, Afro Buddha designer Rachel Konte and ceramicist Andrea Ali where the three of them transformed the historic vegetarian Smokey Joe’s Café into the coolest spot in the East Bay for art, coffee and vibes. The aesthetic is '70s Afro-activist chic, a hint of Black Panther retro with a logo of a gorilla decked out in Huey Newton shades and Che Guevara beret. The ghetto gourmet coffee shop contains iconography paying tribute to cultural and activist heroes such as Muhammad Ali, John Coltrane, Assata Shakur, Nina Simone and civil-rights icon James Baldwin, with Evelyn "Champagne" King and vintage Stevie Wonder often pulsing in the background.
By juxtaposing people from vast geographic spaces within his artistry, the image-maker inherently shows the commonality between diverse groups. His vision is both aesthetic and political, referring directly to humanity - particularly the fragile state of urban living. The realm that Konte explores does not deny the denseness of the urban landscape or the economic poverty experienced by people of color globally. He instead composes, manipulates, and interrogates social conditions. “Once the spirit of the wood with its knots and grain merges with the human image, there is a consciousness speaking from each image that often transcends the original context, and I become an alchemist.”
"Dense, rich textured urban images with delicate undercurrents of magical realism." Vibe Magazine
“If the evolution of art owes itself a cutting-edge artist every now and then, the world of photography should be knee-deep in debt to the works of Keba Konte. The Bay Area-born-and-bred photographer has trekked the world to capture images with his camera and bring their invisible essence to life through a "photomontage" combination of photography and wood. Konte is a true pioneer of this process, and has gained global recognition and praise for his art -- and it's easy to see why. Konte's work is equipped with a maximum authenticity that easily provokes emotional, intellectual, and political response. It gives new life to the term "photographic capture." East Bay Express (Cover Story 2005)
“For Keba Konte, someone else’s trash is his treasure. Konte’s strong family ties have influenced his work in more ways than one. As a child growing up in San Francisco, his mother, a portrait photographer, gave him his first glimpse of the world of photography – the foundation of much of his art. Growing up in an environment with two creative parents spring boarded his talent, but Konte has cultivated an artistic voice over the past 10 years that is all his own.” Upscale Magazine
“The artwork in her foyer, Bleu Lady by Keba Armand Konte, is a 1992 photomontage of a Senegalese woman.” Oprah at Home Magazine (Home of Fatima Robinson)
"Keba Kone’s art is soulful and resonates with me in so many ways. He provides a unique perspective through his images, finding beauty in humanity in the midst of struggle. I'll never forget one of his pieces which at fist glance is a boy embodying joy, freedom and innocence, and at second glace you realize the child is leaping over a grave in a field of tombstones. Keba captures an intimate strength and raw beauty in people through his art, which not only turns into the most dynamic pieces you wish you could own, but also gives a sense of political empowerment. Through his images he's shedding light on those of us who are too often left in the shadows." Goapele, Bay Area Vocalist
“Keba Konte is a San Francisco based artist who creates montages of photographic imprints on wood. His work, which includes photojournalism as well as mixed-media collages, takes on the themes of racial inequality, culture and history in places such as Africa, Cuba, Europe, Japan and the U.S.” Colorlines Magazine
“Inspired by his mother, a portrait photographer, early on he was picking up work photographing hip hop artists, which would ultimately fund his world travels, chasing politics to South L.A. or South Africa. ‘88 Pieces of Me: A Photo Memoir’ is Konte’s nonlinear spill of life reflections – faded store fronts, staircases, musicians on the bandstand, tail fins cruising wide avenues – photographer on wood saturated in dreamy hues of sepia and wistful, almost melancholy hints of blue.” Los Angeles Times
“Mixed Media artist Keba Konte sets his work aflame. Literally. Fate clearly played a pivotal role in bringing visual artist to us and to the world. Whatever you might call it – luck, fate, kismet – it doesn’t describe why we fell for his stuff anymore than the reason we did: its eye wrenching genius. Konte’s keen sense of the visual, coupled with his innate ability to listen to the whisperings of wild chance, helps to create powerfully personal pieces that reflect his distinctly singular view of the world. It is clear he is destined to change the future of contemporary mixed-media art. And knowing Konte, he’ll be right where he should be the next time destiny comes calling.” Code Magazine
“As much as his work is art, it is also a vehicle for his own political and socially conscious voice. “ City Flight (Cover Story)
“Don’t expect to find Do Not Touch signs hanging from Keba Konte’s latest piece of installation art, an in-depth look at black flight from Oakland. A multimedia composition that takes up an entire gallery at the Mills College Art Museum, the piece titled ‘Exodus; Movements of Jah People’ invites visitors not only to touch but to listen, look and feel.“ Contra Costa Times - Bay Area Living
“That’s the idea behind the artist’s newest project, titled ‘888 Pieces of Me: A Photo Memoir.’ Inspired by the alignment of the year 2008 and Konte’s birthday, August 8, the exhibition will include 888 of his photographs, each transferred onto a small plank of salvaged, shaped and burnt wood.” Oakbook Magazine
“When the Oakland artist and photographer Keba Konte exhibits his work, one person after another will come up to him and ask the same question; How do you do that?” SF State University Magazine
"Keba Konte's work accomplishes a great many things. In particular, with his photographic installation 888, he does things that exceed the reach and imagination of others. He combines a very personal expression with formal experimentation, doing that with visual flair and a heart felt embrace of family and community." Rene de Guzman, Senior Curator, Oakland Museum
“Guerilla Café has achieved a down-home chic in the olive-and-brown dining room, complete with distressed-copper walls and pillars, high ceilings and striking portraits from Berkeley artist Keba Konte.” 7x7 Magazine
Goapele - “Closer” featuring artwork by Keba Konte
The artistry of renowned photomontage artist Keba Armand Konte has adorned the homes of Alice Walker, Fatima Robinson, Saul Williams, Gordon Parks, Eriq La Salle and Goapele, received an arsenal of awards and recently spotlighted within Oprah at Home Magazine while the craftsman himself has graced the covers of local Bay Area publications and prepares his epic exhibition ‘888 Pieces of We; A Photo Memoir’ August 8th - September 8th at the Oakland Art Gallery featuring exclusive photographic work of Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Jean-Bertrand Artisted, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Bobby Seale, Ben Harper, Erykah Badu, Andre 3000 and vintage 1991 Tupac Shakur.