In the span of the two years Elton Nahimana spent working on a portrait of the Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, he probably encountered more people at Baltimore’s City Hall than he had during his entire life. “Every day when I walked in and started working,” Nahimana says, “there was a line. I’d go outside and I’d see people on the corner saying to me ‘God bless you.’” On nights that he was painting at night, he remembers getting fired up over some weight-loss pills sold on Craigslist. “You got to me, I felt very positive,” he says, “and I was even happy to have this thing.”
In a month, Nahimana’s engraving “The Ripe Element” went from being a small, subversive take on the typical Smithsonian portrait series by Dorthea Lange to a permanent fixture in the museum’s permanent collection.
That probably isn’t how the image of Cummings began its existence: Nahimana says that in 2016 he approached Cummings with the idea of creating a portrait for the congressman’s 81st birthday. That Cummings accepted the request was not surprising, Nahimana says, given that he served as the party’s chairman from 1989 to 1990, a time when the Democratic caucus was ideologically centered around Cummings. But the origins of the portrait are more unexpected.
It’s hard to find a person who not only has the respect of the congressmen he represents but also knows how to win them over. Elton Nahimana
Nahimana first learned of Cummings as a child growing up in a town near Mombasa, Kenya. Cummings had been then-Senator Paul Simon’s chief of staff in Mombasa, where he is remembered not only for helping Simon win election to the US Senate in 1980 but also for amassing the Ugandan despot Idi Amin’s many detritus. As a sign of solidarity with the suffering nation, Sharon Nakhumu, a young Ethiopian-American and community activist, and Nancy Lin, a South African lesbian, befriended the congressman.
“Like the United States, Uganda was defined by a complex dynamic between the apartheid state and the civil society,” says Nahimana. “It was this rivalry that was very dangerous, very in-your-face. As an American citizen and young Kenyan who came from the East Coast, it just took me a moment to realize that this person in government was ultimately working for the black African community.”
At that point, Nahimana says he had already spent time in Baltimore with his father, who had completed a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, pursuing his PhD and teaching in a local community college while later becoming a “leading light” for the LGBT movement. “It felt like a parallel universe,” he says.
There are no cameras capturing Congressman Elijah Cummings on his lapels.
Nahimana says Cummings had never met a person who “was not born into privilege, in America, being the son of the fire chief in Mombasa. But he was a member of the Bay Community of the Fellowship Baptist Church, a very segregated community. It’s very hard to find a person who not only has the respect of the congressmen he represents but also knows how to win them over.”
By the time Cummings suggested that Nahimana paint him as a birthday gift, Nahimana was moved to document his subjects. He knew Cummings through his brother, Andy, but had never told anyone about Cummings’s role in aiding minority communities or his activism. The congressmen, who used to watch Nahimana make his friend’s photo collages from the back of his Mercedes, started peppering him with questions about how he made his art. “A year later, when my partner and I were sitting in the library, we go through his papers and we start to draw a portrait of him,” Nahimana recalls. “The first thing I found was a photo of him in the 1980s as a teenager. I thought I was documenting something that he wanted to pass down to his granddaughters.”