Thursday, May 3, 2012

Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing

Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio are currently showing the first part of Aminah Robinson's new series, The Chronicle From the Village—Songs for the New Millenium. Part two of the series will appear at the Columbus Museum of Art later this year, second in a series of what Robinson imagines with an ironic roll of the eyes to be of indeterminate length.
Afrikans Entering the Ohio Valley in 1200 AD. Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson.
Mixed media on paper, 21 x 55.5."
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Most of these mixed media works are horizontal. They are painted, drawn, and collaged on dark brown paper that has the look and heft of hand-made. The pieces require two sheets, which are joined by Robinson's signature row of hand-sewn two- and four-hole buttons chosen for their dark, earthy, and neutral colors and materials. The palette she's chosen favors loamy brown, and blue mixed with white in a way that suggests foam on the water or wispy clouds dancing in a bright sky.

These new works are lyrical, rhythmical compositions that emphasize long lines and sinuous curves. Robinson can make us feel like she has executed the central flowing line of women's head and well-occupied hands in one, long, elegant gesture made by her own hand, as if that hand were as big as the ones her women and elders always possess.
Guinea Village in Belmont County, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Mixed Media on paper, 21 x 55.5"
Courtesty, Hammond Harkins Gallery
Detail, left, above
Author photo, through glass
Detail, right, above
Author photo, through glass
But of course she has not done that. This enchanting work draws its life from vivid exaggerations (the sizes of hands and arms) and by great compressions (the distances between figures, the foreshortened space from foreground to background). The feel of spontaneity is distilled from many such individual moments in a carefully executed composition. The liveliness comes through Robinson's acute observation and experience of materials. Perhaps it is more difficult to create the picture of contented serenity than one of dramatic conflict.
Throughout her career, Robinson has celebrated her heroes. Some are African-Americans of public achievement, like Sojourner Truth, or fellow artist Faith Ringgold. But her special love and commitment are for the childhood heroes in her family on the Near Eastside of Columbus, and to the history of her neighborhood.  The central preoccupations of her work arise from her early experiences in this world as a member of a household that included a great grandmother who still recounted her experience of the Middle Passage—of her own abduction from freedom in West Africa to slavery in Georgia—and of Uncle Alvin, the family griot, the storyteller/historian.
ODetailOne Day in 1307 AD: King Abubakari II, 1985-92
Button Beaded RagGonNon Music Box Pop-Up Book: cloth, thread, buttons, beads, paper, paint, graphite and music boxes,
55 x 155", Detail 
Columbus Museum of Art, gift of the artist
Robinson has been working with the present material for years. The detail above is from a work she began in 1985, showing a teacher pointing to a model of Abubakari's fleet. 

The topic arises from Uncle Alvin's stories about ancient Africans who crossed the Atlantic and reached Ohio via the Great Lakes or the Ohio River during the 13th century A.D. The current series interprets their passage and their village life in the forests.

Songs for the New Millenium, Aminah Robinson
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Many who love Robinson's art (see my August, 2011 article in this blog) for aesthetic (or investment) reasons, seem to overlook this content as the harmless fulminations of an adorable eccentric. ("They think I'm crazy," Robinson tells me, spinning her finger in circles by her head, in the sign of the loose screw of unsound gear.) For years she has been making us of the Columbus are research libraries and geological surveys to dig into the basis of Uncle Alvin's story.

In Songs for the New Millenium Robinson records what she's concluded in a manner that suggests not only a pedagogical program but a sacred one. Three hand-lettered documents on vellum—prepared calf- or sheepskins—constitute the Teaching Tools. There are one mission statement and two maps. One map shows Ohio by county, highlighting the sites where there is evidence suggesting the possibility of ancient African settlement. The map of her childhood Columbus neighborhood records its development and documents its alterations as one would expect the thorough-going historian to do. She is such a historian.

Songs for the New Millenium, detail. Robinsons' historical map of the near eastside of Columbus, noting the changes
 of street names, homes of notable residents, sites of community importance, structures once venerated and now gone.

On these precious teaching tools, a motley figure more likely to be seen in a childrens' book than on the Magna Carta points out the critical information. This wise serpent (in some West African traditions, the serpent is the incarnation of deceased relatives) is followed by the words, rendered in large, colorful lettering, "Uncle Alvin says..." Uncle Alvin's memory is the host and guardian presence for the spirit of this pedagogical enterprise; the audience is children or the childlike, who are wise enough to listen to the authority of elders. Children need to learn their history and understand their spiritual legacy.

Uncle Alvin appears on the vellum works in this show, even one that is dominated more by image than by words, Sacred Life of the Neareast Side. Massed male forms stand inside their pirogue that is decorated with scales of precious metal colors—gold, solver, copper, bronze—to fold a sail as they ease into a cove created by a tree with green roots. 

The work is formed with two skins that are hand-stitched together without buttons, leaving the image uninterrupted. The brown skin of the figures, the brown tree trunk, and the contrasting shine of the vessel, all against the warm, neutral color of the vellum add to the compositional dignity and solemnity of the document. As in a cupped hand, the image unites sustaining Nature, the power of Art, and the strength of massed human will and effort. These are values that appear again and again throughout Robinson's work. 
Sacred Life of the Neareast Side, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
48 x 20.75," vellum and calfskin, 2012
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries

Detail, Erie Village Founded by Afrikans, Aminah Robinson
Mixed media on paper, 28.25 x 62.25."
Author photo, through glass
For Robinson, racial history and family history are part and parcel of the central theme: being as fully-realized a human being as possible. Because this theme seems universal —inclusive, if you will—and because Robinson gives it dignified and beautiful expression in her work, Robinson is often discounted as being an African-American artist, at least locally. "There's no protest, no rage, no line to divide any groups," seems to be part of her appeal.

It's ironic that both white and African American audiences can enjoy Robinson's humane art yet for years turn blind eyes to central preoccupations that now she is making explicit to the point of stating in words. This series, for instance, really is about the history of African settlement in American, a topic neither Robinson nor Uncle Alvin was making up. Without much effort, anyone can find the published theory that Emperor Abubakari II of the Malian Empire (today's Mali, Gambia, and much of western Africa) explored the Atlantic with a large fleet and established North American settlements. A BBC News article from 2000 explains that though the theory is not without champions, archaeologists tend not to be among them because there is little physical evidence. Those who study it most carefully are students of the griot tradition. While Western scholars may be skeptical about the authority of oral tradition as an accurate vehicle for history, that point-of-view is far from universally accepted.
The Storyteller, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Mixed media on paper, 2010
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries

Uncle Alvin was a griot. Robinson is herself a griot for generations that don't believe in them, don't listen to oral history or care to. 

Robinson's conclusions about the nature of the diaspora—the result of slavery, or of exploration?—are only one aspect of the career-spanning work she is trying to unite in her new series. For her, the deepest history of Africans in America is intimately related to the current issues in her beloved neighborhood. In particular, she finds heinous the city's current plan to abandon and raze Poindexter Village, the first public housing in Ohio. Opened in 1940 by President Roosevelt, Poindexter housed not only Robinson's family, but generations of highly respected African American families. For years it has kept many families off the streets; these people have been the subjects for many Button Manuscript pages similar to "The Storyteller," in which she portrays the dignity and humanity of neighbors most reduced in circumstances.

It is because Robinson pictures the dispossessed as they deserve to be seen that her bedrock positions on illegitimate power and inhumanity are overlooked and her art is appreciated as pretty and fundamentally toothless. She shows the Africans ancestors as explorers, not slaves. She links the power to overcome neighborhood problems to the strength of ancient forbears, faithfully transmitted through millennia by oral history. That storytelling tradition legitimates as more than poetics her vision of the homeless whose rags become raiment.

Chronicles from the Village, the first of the Teaching Tools, then, is of the utmost importance in her entire body of work. It is unique for being an immense written document. In it she states what she has been suggesting visually throughout her career, but now states unmistakably in words. She tells us that she is repelled by inhumane treatment of the vulnerable, and that African Americans have suffered the cruelest of this from the beginning of their experience in the Western Hemisphere; that she makes her work in the hope to illuminating this, and making a difference. 

Robinson is getting old. She has worked all day, every day, in private concentration, for her whole, long career. Chronicles of the Village is dated, "1958-2012" in an indication of the force of decades behind her thoughts. 

Because few will get the opportunity to see this document, hand-written on vellum in many colors like sacred texts of the Renaissance, I've copied its text below so that Robinson's statement is recorded. (Spellings are Robinson's.)


One day, when the Morning come...

The body of work coming out of Chronicles from the Village: Songs for the New Millenium, is a reminder of what came before when morning come, and to address issues facing all of us today in the new Millenium. I encourage each person who was raised on the Neareastside of Columbus, Ohio to testify in putting their recollections on paper, canvas, in song, film, or however one chooses to create and tell their own stories.

Generations of poverty, lost jobs, 2nd class schools; again and again history continues to repeat itself! An indigenous people, whose families lived on the sacred land of the neareastside of Columbus, Ohio since the 1200's.

The New Millenium: the uprooting of an indigenous people, their traditions, culture, and history, and the scattering of this way of life to the winds. Many of the families will fall through the "cracks" and end up homeless; living under bridges, in cardboard tent communities and in shelters. The failures and misdeeds toward any group of people or human beings is again, a History that is being repeated.

When morning come...since the days Afrikan people were kidnapped from the HOME for thousands of years, forced into slave houses in chains on the Transatlantic Crossing, and shipped to slave markets to be auctioned for a live of slavery of plantations throughout the Caribbean and South and North Amerika. She slaves were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized & subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names, their traditions, their languages and their cultures. Afrikans in Amerika continue in the New Millenium to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow Laws that fostered discrimination and segregation; wrongs committed against a people and their descendents who suffered under enslavement. Jim Crowish, segretation and discrimination, wrongs that continue today by uprooting an indigenous people out of Poindexter Village and the Neareastside of Columbus, Ohio. I personally see/and view the situation as a crime against humanity.

When Morning is my hope, that issues of sacred land of Poindexter Village will bring about a Resolution to rectifying generational lingering consequences of injustice of any human being or group of people.

Chronicles from the Village: Songs for the New Millenium is based on the Oral Tradition from the elders of my family and community & I have also provided an historical account of events arranged in order of times but without analysis or interpretation with loosely connected episodes also arranged in the Oral Tradition.

The Village are Chronicles from Columbus and throughout Ohio, Afrika, Puerto Rico and throughout Amerika and the Globle World.

When Morning the timelessness of all life, water still flows, roots still bear witness to a new day and deep in the wellspring of this ancient life the reminder of what came before—when Morning Come, and that the integrity of its inner life be preserve through its culture, traditions and history is reaffirming its base future re-development on its traditional worldview.

March 23, 2012/ Manuscript Page/ the Teaching Tools:vellum: calfskin & sheepskin/ 1958-2012/Inventory1774

Detail, Sacred Life of the Neareastside, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2012
Courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. i am so lucky to have run into this artist through a chance encounter on pinterest. what a treasure to this country, what a treasure to the arts, and a treasure to me who love fabric art. thank you for this chronicle. i will come back to it again and again.