Monday, August 29, 2011

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Knowing Love from Where She Sits

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Gift of Love, 1974-2002
Wood, hogmawg (mud, pig grease, dyes, glue, and lime), mud, leather, music boxes, and found objects, 
61 x 35 x 56 inches
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Promised gift of the artist
© Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson

The Columbus Museum of Art's Street Talk and Spiritual Matters: Aminah's Mt. Vernon Avenue will close on September 4. Anyone within a day's drive of central Ohio can still hurry to see Robinson's peerless work. For those of you who can't make it, look up Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, a CMA catalogue with essays, published by Harry N. Abrams on the occasion of the Robinson retrospective in 2002. The CMA also maintains an encyclopedic website, Aminah's World

Robinson is a single-minded artist who has been making art from before sunrise until the wee hours for most of her life. The vastness of her oeuvre (which includes sculptures, constructions, quilted fabric "paintings," books, prints, drawings, and carvings) reflects her fertility of imagination and strength of mission, both fed by finely educated observational and analytical skills. As stunning as her purely generative force is her ability to express herself by inventing unique, emotionally charged forms.

The Gift of Love chair is signed and dated 1995, but the museum dates it 1974-2002. Since the chair returns to Robinson's home and studio when it is not on loan, it’s possible that it will be dated even further out the next time it’s shown. 

One of the preoccupations driving Robinson is keeping alive the memory of the Columbus, Ohio African-American neighborhood where she grew up. During her childhood in the 1950's, she heard stories sacred to generations of her elders—stories going as far back as her eldest aunt's recollections of the Middle Passage from Angola to slavery in Georgia and eventual emancipation. All of Robinson's work is Janus-like, deeply engaged with the past, with an urgent push into a future informed by history. Robinson is passionate about the education of every new generation, and has made many books for children to that end. 

Robinson's present—in which she never ceases to work—is composed almost entirely of past and future. Since neither ever ends, it is not merely poetic to say that none of her works is ever necessarily finished. That's how I understand the Gift of Love chair. However it be signed or labeled, like her life and oeuvre, it’s a work alive with potential. Even though I write of it as a work of art occupying museum space (aren't museum artifacts "closed?"), it’s uniquely open, and alive.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Gift of Love, 1974-2002
© Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
This detail is cropped from full view, above.

Gift of Love, according to Museum labeling, is made of "wood, hagmawg, mud, leather, music boxes, found objects." To pursue the "found objects" a little further, my survey discovers sticks and twigs; massive tree roots; steel wool pads; artist's work boxes; buttons; cowrie shells; stamped impressions taken from screens and miscellaneous objects; a tin can cut into thin strips shaped into a curlicue table; fabric scraps, and the wooden handles of hand tools and kitchen implements. This is certain to be a partial list.

Author photo, left. Note cut tin can chair atop 
button-covered work box.

What's "hogmawg?" It's a material her resourceful father taught Robinson to make in her childhood, when money was scarce. It's compounded of fat, mud, glue, lime, dye, and probably contains other natural elements. Make no mistake: Robinson is a major American artist who commands very high prices; she’s academically trained, a lover of Michelangelo, and a 2006 MacArthur Foundation “Genius" Grant winner. She can afford and knows how to use any material or implement she wants, but hogmawg remains a commonly-used material in her work.

Robinson is an artist of figure and text. Still life or landscape exists in her work only to the extent that the spirit blows through objects and landscapes bustle with people. In her Memory Maps series of mixed media RagGonNons (they require their own nomenclature, being neither paintings, quilts, nor banners, but related to each) she maps her old neighborhood, long since decayed, accurately labeling street addresses, businesses, buildings, and even the vendors and local characters themselves. It doesn’t take an interest in the history of Columbus, however, for the viewer to be moved by the teeming street life represented in joyous fashion. Along Mt. Vernon Avenue, everyone is familiar, connected by proximity, daily transactions, and shared past (see below).

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 
Mt. Vernon Avenue, North Side of Street 1900-1957/Page Three: Memory Maps, (detail) 1989-92 
RagGonNon: paint on cloth with thread and buttons, 40 x 224 inches,
Collection of the artist. 
Author photos of Hampton Court, above,
and Gift of Love  right

Robinson’s imposing chair is a figurative object, yet of a single, solitary sort. The grandeur of its scale transcends its humble materials, setting its occupant apart as a throne would. Pictured left is a 17th-century throne in a reception room at Hampton Court, near London. The chair itself is austere, but placed in its grand setting. Robinson’s chair, by contrast, provides its own rich ornamentation and its own environment. No ermine is required of its occupant to make an impression on the visitor. 

Yet on the left side of Gift of Love, carved into a large, wooden watercolor box attached to the frame, are the words, “EVERY DAY LIFE AND HISTORY OF AFRO AMERIKANS FEATURING COLUMBUS OHIO.” (Below.) Down the red staff on the right, below Robinson’s signature, is the further attribution to the series, “Legends of the Blackberry Patch.” The artist explicitly considers it part of her community series. This confuses the impulse to think it indicates of hierarchical prominence. Who would stand out in the Blackberry Patch? The Ice Man and Soothsayer have their own pulpits.

The occupant of this chair is surrounded by a world of figures assembled from mud, sticks and scraps. Where we’ve seen the masses of people on the Mt. Vernon Avenue sidewalks, above, the masses are missing from the chair, leaving individuated, outstanding characters set apart from the throng. 

Along the back of the chair, for instance, Robinson has placed an image of Oba. As a grant recipient, the artist once traveled in several African countries, including Nigeria, the home of the Yoruba. The “oba” is a village leader among the Yoruba, so he stands for the idea of a father-like, wise and nurturing protector.

The next image to the right is of the barber-carver, Elijah Pierce, a brilliant folk artist from Columbus who was a crucial mentor for the young Robinson. (Pierce was a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. Other figures mounted around the chair depict her mother demonstrating needlecrafts to children; her father and others instructing youth and telling stories. One figure strides forward with his head turned backwards, her late son, illustrating Robinson’s  linking of past and future in the fleeting present.

While Gift of Love surrounds the sitter with figures that represent Robinson’s legacy of community and its paragons of creativity, the chair has a soul deeper even than representation for being filled with latent music. The Museum’s label notes that music boxes are among Robinson’s materials, even though they are easily overlooked in the many other fascinations of the chair.
Music is a major motif throughout Robinson’s work. My Lord What a Morning—organ pipes with drawing—and sketches for it, pictured below, suggest the force she finds in the songs that have sustained Afro-Americans ever since African slaves were brought to this continent. She has plainly and powerfully drawn many emotionally loaded images of women—mostly their faces and enormous hands—based on the titles of spirituals.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, My Lord What a Morning, 1994
Acrylic on wood with iron, steel and music boxes, 10 pieces, 8-10 ft height
Museum Purchase, Derby Fund

Once I started concentrating, it didn't take long to find six music boxes imbedded in Gift of Love, I'm certain that there are more. Their keys protrude from the backs of figures like Pierce (below), the sewing mother, Oba, the backwards-walking youth, the may playing the "button accordion" (right), etc. Even without hearing a note, know that these figures can sing makes them even more real and alive. Like all of us, they are composed of earth and they have breath because they can sing. Be we are not just alike: Those folks are immortal because art will keep them that way forever.

Gift of Love is the heart of Robinson's work for several reasons. One of them is because it is the most complete and refined statement of her theme of loving connectedness. She illustrates it in the tenderly posed family carved into the leather seat. She illustrates it specifically in portraits of revered elders. She indicates its spiritual dimension by incorporating music into the very construction of the piece. Her process and materials emphasize the deliberate, hand-crafted, human-scaled reality of love.

Yet the chair is singular for all its being an exemplar of central themes. For one thing, it really is a throne, even in relation to the common world of the Blackberry Patch. The tendency is to think of Robinson as a populist artist, but this piece proves that she allows exceptions. This work is in her private collection and she’s worked on it for years. It’s her chair. She’s the one it’s made for, the artist is the person apart.

Another common (and accurate) observation about the generality of Robinson’s work is that it is colorful and bright. Indeed she paints with huge, undiluted and unmixed strokes of strokes of color; she collages with scraps of bold, eye-catching prints or men’s ties; buttons decorate work in every medium she plies. There can be an almost circus-like quality to the Columbus, Ohio work, giving her the reputation of an artist who makes sweet and accessible, warm-hearted, nostalgic work. Even the Macarthur Foundation cited her for her body of work as a “folk artist” (she emphatically is not), with the unfortunate suggestion of Grandma Moses or toothless sweetness.

Gift of Love is highly colored, within a broad palette of varnished black and brown. It is a hymn to every shade of dark, and is populated by figures representing all the shapes and colors of (steel-wooly haired) Black people. Where many viewers just overlook skin tone in the swirling carnival of colors in her work on paper, that can't be done here. Smack in the center is the universal image of a nurturing nuclear family, portrayed as black as night. 

This detail is cropped from full view at top. NB black roots 
crossing at the middle of the seat.
The found materials selected for this work aren’t all buttons and bottle-tops. Two massive tree roots that support the seat and weave through its arms hold the chair together. The job even of placing them would have been formidable for this solitary artist with a very cramped workspace.  The chair was hand-made and shows every mark of Robinson’s hewing and carving. It is plain that it was made without assistance from power tools. All the wood is surely darkened and shiny with gallons of Robinson’s of sweat. The act of making the chair reflects the artist's connectedness to the history she inhabits and celebrates, the traditions of manual labor and rough work.

Robinson may never repose on the throne, but, like any person’s favorite chair—the one that eventually conforms to one’s own shape—Gift of Love is her “Self-portrait as an Artist.” It is her family tree (her “roots”) and her mission of memory. But it is also a mirror that reflects her person and character: indomitable, reverent, skillful, witty, tough, and Black. She knows who she is and she sees herself set apart on the throne she’s earned and built for herself.

The throne represents the artist’s authority as observer and interpreter.  Every detail emphasizes the care she took to let us know that it’s African-Americans she’s observing.

Robinson’s work is considered a humanistic treasure trove that exemplifies beauty, intelligence, heart, and inspiration without ever demonstrating sentimentality, moralizing, or grandiosity. Many white viewers appreciate that their pleasure isn't complicated by any explicit race message—meaning that the work doesn’t seem political, angry, or disturbing to people who don’t want Blacks and Whites to be different. They might even use Robinson’s work to prove that the races are peacefully and contentedly just alike.

Gift of Love, however, is uncompromisingly situated as an Afro-American work. It has an unmistakable point of view as a self-portrait by an Afro-American artist. It touches on the major themes that everyone can love, but it reminds us that all of her work is the product of vision arising from singularly African-American experience. It is inherently not like the experience of white people.

As viewers of art, we are never obliged to worry about an artist’s intentions. We may understand any object, text, or piece of music on its aesthetic merits and in the context that we place it in. This is hardly a barren approach; it can be the source of considerable insight and pleasure.

But to the extent that we value art as experience that expands and generously complicates the world; and to the extent that we believe that artists are worthy of thrones with some height and decoration, it behooves us to wonder what they mean when they reveal their work to us. To consider the racial content of Robinson’s work only expands the notion of her work’s’ relevance and beauty. It’s to respect her perspective and to acknowledge that we stand to learn from artists.

If all we can do is to worry that we'll find something scary if we acknowledge Robinson's legitimate concern with race, then we need all the more to study and understand her work. We need  to take a lesson in her understanding of love, and to give up thinking of her work as an adored pet to whom we never give a thought, presuming on its good nature. 

If we know Robinson's Gift of Love chair, we'll know a lot more about a point of view that gives love of family, community, and place deeper colors and even more weight of significance than we might otherwise realize.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Gift of Love, Author photo

1 comment:

  1. Ann, thank you for this tour of an amazing artist and woman. I now feel I can go to the exhibit open to a whole new world of meanings.