Sunday, March 8, 2015

Walkin' Down the Long Street: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson at 75

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hog Hammock
Buttons, beads, crayon,
 pen on paper. Framed: 19 x 16 inches
Courtesy Hammond Harkins Gallery
It would be so easy to frame the story of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson as the great American tale of rags to riches. Brought up in an African-American family in Columbus, Ohio public housing, soaked in the stories of a great aunt who recalled the horrors not only of slavery but of the Middle Passage, the child of material poverty grows up to be an abandoned single mother, raising her child alone on welfare, then to have her son die as a young man. Yet she endures and works, refusing to let poverty interfere with art-making, her calling. She relies on the support of artist mentors in the African-American community. She sells her work to anyone she can persuade to buy it until one day, after years of focus, one day after she's turned sixty, the MacArthur Foundation rings her up. Finally, she's rich! And, the world discovers, she's a genius!

Great story, and in certain facts true, but essentially all wrong. Robinson's story is of riches to riches, or perhaps from rags to rags. In the great body of work on display now at Hammond Harkins Gallery in Bexley, Ohio, the show celebrating Robinson's 75th Birthday, we see no changes of theme or even materials in work that spans over 60 years. Wherever she's been in time and place, whatever she's owned, we see that she's an artist who has always had access to what she needed. Past. Future. Community Memory and Race Memory. Love and Anger in passionate degree. And the sharpness of observation that we call Vision. With those, rags will always do. In fact, they are the most precious material of all.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, The Crowman.

Buttons, beads, cloth, thread, crayon, pen on Hosho
 paper. Framed: 16 ¾ x 14 inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery

Robinson was trained in drawing by her father, to whom she attributes her ability to see quickly and deeply. These skills were enhanced at what is now Columbus College of Art and Design. Were she to have made a career of draftsmanship alone, she would be one of our great artists—a great portraitist, for she reveals worlds in her drawings of individuals. 

The Crow Man appears many times in her works memorializing Poindexter Village, where she grew up. Many of those works are on a grand scale, picturing the whole neighborhood, where individuals are represented with only a stroke or two. In portrait drawings like these, we see who they are and what they mean. As in nearly all of Robinson's work, she does not allow the elegant drawing itself suffice to portray the depths or to communicate the importance of this person. When she was a child, the Crowman was a king—a source of wonder, friendship, and awe. He may have been someone most of us would see as a street person. She bestows upon him a winged crown—a bird that trusted him—and gives him brilliant rags that serve the role of royal robes. Rags are central to his richness.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba.
Cloth, gouache, cowry shells, string on heavy stock
Framed: 57 ¼ x 28 ¼ inches. Courtesy
Hammond Harkins Gallery
Another form of Robinson portrait reverses the proportion of drawing and collage in a way that makes the drawing even more forceful and tender. In this life-sized portrait of her great-aunt Themba, It's clear where the woman's force lies. The swaddling fabric scraps give her volume and definition in the sense that they delimit her: they keep her human. The simplicity of the forms in this piece help us understand Themba as more human than goddess, while the size hints that her impact transcends the mortal.  

The size of the hands in this portrait is a hallmark of Robinson's women and elders, who are protectors and vessels. They preserve history, mores, and cultural wisdom. In doing so, they watch out for the current generation and those to come. This Themba, so simplified yet so particular, is both the wise woman who suffered horrors, yet endured to pass her spirit and knowledge into Aminah; and she is the mother of us all, the mother who asks us to continue her inherited values of love, respect, and reflection.

Robinson uses cowrie shells to sew together the two sheets of paper that form this drawing, those shells being reminders of Africa, whence Themba was forcibly carried to the United States. The picture that opens this article is also of Themba in the Hog Hammock community where she first lived on Sapelo, a barrier island off Georgia. In that portrait, her vision is enhanced with glass button eyes as she stares into the future of her community (the current population is under 50). Robinson does not make of Themba a goddess, but she does admit her role of seer.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Themba, Healer,
Herbalist, Prophet.
First page of fabric book. Author photo.
The current Hammond Harkins show is particularly rich in Robinson's fabric and book works, works in which the artist not so much moves beyond drawing, but into it. In many works on paper, she begins with dry or wet drawing media, then enhances or ennobles her subject by the addition of scraps, buttons, or beads. These collaged materials serve the role of riches: They are the incrustations with which Medieval artists responded to devotional needs; they are the decorations with which animist tribal artisans responded to their spiritual communions. 

In the large format book, Themba: Healer, Herbalist, Prophet, the woman is portrayed with features represented by cowrie shells and a green button mouth. behind her (on the right side of the page) a wide-eyed, shadow Themba exerts (or shares) a forcefield with the figure to the left—another representation of Themba? 

For Robinson, the same person is, I believe, rendered observationally in every form of representation she makes. Themba with shell features sending stitch powers; the one whose face and hands dominate her physical being; the one with beads sewn onto on a portrait head drawn as if by Leonardo: In the mind and in the eyes of Robinson, all these portraits are one and all are real. Rags? Riches? Distinction is absurd; category and compartmentalization are absurd. The reason Robinson gets up at 4:30 in the morning and works in solitude all day is because expression of insight is such difficult work, requiring endless effort. To overcome the viewers' habits of distinction, to cultivate awareness of common wisdom, is the work of a lifetime for Themba's legatee.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Aminah’s Blackberry Patch,
 1800-1930: Before Poindexter Village. 
Carved, dyed, and sewn
leather with five insets (insets are mixed media). 18 ½ x 11 x 2 ¼"
 (closed). Dedication: “Gift to My Son – Sydney E. Robinson on
his 15th Birthday, 1982.”
 Courtesy of Hammond Harkins
Robinson's brilliant books are well represented in this show. The book as an art form is a favorite form for contemporary artistic exploration. Shows of artists' books often concentrate on what can be made of the codex form. Robinson experiments with the codex as vehicle, but she does not play with the central concept of the book as The Word—as the means of communicating  enduring, valuable content. In her hands, the book is why we weep over the floods that destroy libraries, and why we shudder to hear of the Taliban's wholesale destruction of ancient monuments. By means of books, civilization preserves the memory of culture. This is emphatically what Robinson's books are meant to do.

Opposite side of Aminah's Blackberry
1982. Author photo.
Aminah's Blackberry Patch takes the form of a large leather portfolio into which smaller cases fit, holding fold-up, paper books of drawings that picture the busy African-American neighborhood of Aminah's childhood in Columbus. A gift for her son in 1982, this too is a vessel and an embracing, a gift that passes along memory and heritage. As a work of art, it manifests all of Robinson's quickness and control: the supreme confidence of her direct carving into the leather—the way she gives the impression of spontaneous writing on the inner flaps, paired with the neatness of the lacing and the perfectly-fit composition of the faces on the cover and back panel. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Vol. 3 -- “Life Throbs, the Neighborhood (1800 – 1930), Blackberry Patch.” Crayon, pen, buttons, thread on paper. Contains four “pages.” Closed: 9 ½ x 11 ½ inches. Open: 10 x 41 inches. Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Gallery.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson,
Emancipation Day, September 22,
1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Aminah Robinson, detail of Emancipation
Day, September 22, 1900, Blackberry
Author Photo.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Emancipation Day,
September 22, 1900, Blackberry Patch.
Author photo.
Robinson creates books of overwhelming size, books so big that they are banners, so big that they fill walls. These are books that I compare to stained glass windows because they tell stories of broad cultural importance, and do it in a form that glorifies the content. Her commemoration of Emancipation Day is a collection of individual panels, each of which could stand alone, but which, all together, remind the viewer of many reasons to celebrate everyday African-American life. This, as so often in Robinson's work, takes the form of the folk life that binds the two continents. Emancipation is understood as a holiday of American Black folk. But Robinson strives to link the emancipated American to a heritage of first freedom, when Americans were Africans. She makes these connections through allusions to folk life fed by deep ties to legacies people might not even recognize as ancestral. In this panel, children play the game "Bird in the cage." In Themba: Healer, Herbalist and Prophet, she illustrates the custom of jumping the broom. This was a practice of enslaved couples trying to form permanent, wedded unions, which hearkens back to West Africa.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, scene of
jumping the broom from Themba: Healer,
Herbalist and Prophet.
 Author photo.

The "bird in the cage" and "jumping the broom" pages illustrate two manners of Robinson's work in "folkloric" styles, which are clearly masterfully considered and controlled. Whether she uses stick figures or expressive, exaggerated figures, each of her many styles is chosen carefully and used to convey the values invested in her subjects. 

One of the materials Robinson uses as prolifically as she uses paint or ink is buttons. In some of the work, buttons are virtually the sole material—buttons and some underpinning to hold them all together. Many understand these bright, common, utilitarian closures as her popular signature. I sometimes wonder if the charm of buttons don't lure viewers not merely to the work but straight past its passionate messages. 

The use of buttons, pins, and similar trinkets, however, points to yet another aspect of Robinson's almost explosively-laden art. Buttons have the functional and symbolic power to bring two sides together, but they can also serve, as any pretty small thing can, as a medium of exchange. Like coins, marbles, beads, or shells, buttons can be traded, offered, acquired. They can make a person rich. They can be used as people in European traditions use gemstones, to decorate and to denote special objects as precious.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, book cover, Family Treasures. Author photo.

The cover of the large, wall-mounted book, Family Treasures, shows a document that is twice-precious. It is family history, which is sacred, and it is preserved in book form. This comes literally encrusted, literally like a treasure that tempts the hand to scoop into it. The appliquéd title appears to be sunken beneath a layer of gems. Yet if the reader clicks on this photograph for a larger view, it's clear that none of the buttons are particularly noteworthy in themselves—just as an aggregation of coins in itself need amount to nothing. Rags to riches. Riches to riches.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, first page, Family Treasures. Author photo.

The page that follows depicts two women dancing, the one in a dress fashioned from a showy beadwork appliqué. Along the edge of the adjoining cover are tubular beads that Robinson may well have acquired on one of her trips to West Africa. If those beads have the significance we usually assign to items of exotic origin, that value sinks quietly into the fabric of the book. The detail our eyes value is the gaudy appliqué that forms the dress, which could be a scrap cut from a an elderly relative's castoff. Exotic commonness and familiar exotica; riches both.

Robinson works in so many ways that have arisen and disappeared only to rise again in the the current of her long career; and since she works literally without interruption in her home, where she eschews media connections and keeps her landline phone number most private; it is difficult to generalize about anything that may be representative of her "current" work. But I was mesmerized by a tiny work from 2014 that appears to bring to refined, essential form all she values of African and Western traditions; of nurture, elder wisdom, and of cultural memory preserved in word and in artifact. This is a "roll book" that incorporates a doll figure of a woman into the structure of a book.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 1, exterior. Author photo.

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 2, exterior. Author photo.
The piece is made of black and white cloth  and knitting scraps, ornamented with buttons and beads of white and silver. The fabrics are homely, but the ornaments, applied with red thread, are most artistically chosen to lend a luxurious trim and texture to a figure that would once have been considered (and is, no doubt still, in some quarters) a "Mammy." The sparkling glass; the variegated ceramic beads; the magnificent silver butterfly brooch are like a lifetime's accumulated wealth in which this woman is garbed. Her riches are at once real and metaphorical. 
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2014. Roll book
with female figure. View 3, interior. Author photo.
In an exquisite condensation of meaning and materials, though, we find that the doll is in fact the opening of a book. Its tiny, velvet pages turn wordlessly, each decorated with a beautiful frame of  virtual gems and pearls. In this book there are no words, and no representations of historical or autobiographical scenes. The work itself seems to represent the value of memory itself, or of history. The doll is a kind of guardian angel, a woman whose dignity is earned from her age and experience of labor in the past, all refined now to pearls of wisdom, placed in the hands of the bearer. It's an invitation to use the future as wisely as others have preserved the past in written and spoken history. Perhaps she suggests that our books of days—so tiny, precious, and intimate—will fill up and wipe themselves clean effortlessly in the course of time.

Since she was ten, it's been Robinson's mission to preserve and transmit the values she learned from Themba, a visionary born in Africa, brought to America as a servant beast, who lived for a century to reveal the importance of history to an intuitive great-niece. Robinson's gift comes without hauteur, powered by the heat of conviction and of talent, raw and practiced. In what most of us call scraps and discards, she uses her talents as thread and buttons to sew together African prehistory with the stories of her own childhood and her mentors for the benefit of untold kin for millennia to come. 

At 75, Robinson reveals through a lifetime of work that she is an artist comfortable in her own inheritance as seer, historian and conservator of her culture. This isn't work that could be done by anyone who thinks of herself as a genius. It's the work of a woman who doesn't see rags.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, detail from Folklife in Columbus Ohio 1957, altered spinning wheel sculpture. Mother pushing baby carriage; baby with bottle. Inscription reads, "Walkin' down Long Street." Music box installed in Mother figure. Author photo.
For other articles on Aminah Robinson in Starr Review, see:
May 3, 2012: Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing
August 29, 2011: Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Knowing Love from Where She Sits