Saturday, October 1, 2016

Aminah Robinson's Presidential Suite, 2016

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hot Boiling Sun,
watercolor on paper, study. Photo courtesy of
Hammond Harkins Galleries

"Hot Boiling Sun comin' down on me," is what Aminah Robinson wrote on this watercolor study for a the much larger work, Hot Boilin' Sun. So much of what characterizes Robinson's enduring hold on us is condensed into this single sheet.

Look at this woman's right arm, how it travels between muscular and emaciated to end in the huge, sinewy hand. Notice not only the expression of concentration and restraint on her face, so succinctly laid down with unhesitating brush strokes, but the form of her body—the breasts dangling and twisted, the spread of hips and legs that balance visually and literally the vessel of cotton on her slanted shoulders. The position of the figure on the paper is askew, emphasizing the sense of slow, falling; of a moment between stumbling and rising. The twisted body doesn't determine the direction: It's that implacable face that will.

None of the condensed effect of this single study is lost when Robinson transfers and multiplies it to her magnificent, rich, multi-paneled painting, Hot Boilin' Sun.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hot Boilin' Sun. Mixed media and collage on paper. Courtesy of Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Detail of left panel, below

"Hot Boilin' Sun Comin' Over Me from Sun-Up to Sun-Down Slaves Picked Cotton," is Robinson's inscription. In this complex composition of women and children in the cotton fields, the writhing and twisting of the study's one body is dispersed across the whole, rhythmic panel. The pain and effort are embodied by the group in which each individual is (literally) entwined with her neighbor. Any chains here are the chains of community, shared labor and sisterhood.

Neither are these slaves actually depicted under the hot boilin' sun. To the contrary, they don't stand, but float angelically against a clear blue sky in which they appear to gather not literal cotton, but soft dollops of cloud. These women have crossed over Jordan yet remain in community with one another through a river of shared relationship represented by the graceful, flowing composition of the entire work.

Both of these works, on view through October 9 at Hammond Harkins Galleries in Columbus, are among a vast show of the late Robinson's breathtaking, Presidential Suite, a vast work comprised of many pieces—her unique RaGonNon fabric collages, watercolors, paintings, and writings

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, President Barak Hussein Obama from Presidential Suite. RaGonNon: mixed media: fabric
embroidery, buttons, music boxes.
This RaGonNon, Book of Revelations (with its subject, "President Barak Hussein Obama" inscribed on the top panel) is the centerpiece of the Hammond Harkins show: There's more at the Columbus Museum of Art. Any work in the gallery, in any medium, is an offshoot of this magnificent tree. 

In her Presidential Suite, Robinson finds a consummate home for the passions unfailingly embodied in her tremendous body of work: justice, community, and hope that knowledge of the past can inform a better future. For her, President Obama presented the best hope for a future in which the accomplishments of African-Americans would be allowed to shine through the narrative of slavery and repression, fertilizing the ground for more and more to come.

It's central to Robinson's lifetime of work and thought that deep historical knowledge must inform the on-going quest for a better world; without knowing history, one lacks models, mores, and power. This central theme has been reported here in several reviews of her work (see March 8, 2015; May 3, 2012; August 24, 1011.) President Obama's election was not only a political event, but a climactic one in the history of African-American history and culture. The shining history she recorded with such loving passion across her entire career could reassert itself now under a government led by a new exemplar. The point of the Presidential Suite is of past and present joined for a just future.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Hope is to Remember from the Presidential Suite. Mixed media on hand-made paper.
Image courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery. Detail below.

With the same flowing motion and interconnection of figures as in her scene of slaves translated to Heaven, Robinson connects Past, Present, and Future in one surge of humans reaching across to one another, forging a chain of hope.
Note the arm and hand gestures here and in Hot Boilin' Sun. The scooping gestures in Hope is to Remember are hand-offs between figured generations; the hands don't curl as the cotton pickers' do. They extend, even though the final (future) gesture is the dropping of—cotton. Throughout the Suite, I think Robinson uses cotton as a symbol that changes with time. Once the subject of forced labor, it becomes part of cultural continuity, softened and imbued with meaning by the laying on of millions of women's hands. Laid however low, slaves and their ancestors have made beauty and meaning even from the depths of direst experience.

Hot Boilin' Sun and Hope is to Remember are works that would dominate any gallery by themselves. In this show, they are among the several pieces that detail the universal messages that Robinson worked into her vision of President Obama's election and years office. (Indeed, she worked on this until her death; a needle and thread remain dangling from a panel. I doubt, however, that Robinson would "complete" anything as long as there was history to investigate and tell, and a future to hold hope for.)

Robinson dedicates the Presidential Suite to family and community, two threads that she saw embodied in Barak Obama and his presidency. In this RagOnNon panel, she brings those ideas together in the most natural way, celebrating the conferring of the Nobel Prize on Obama on the same day as the equally happy occasion of family pet Bo's birthday.

In the panel above this salute, the entire Obama family is depicted enjoying a stroll in the White House Rose Garden, gaily painted in full bloom of red and pink flowers. Pet dog Bo is indeed a family member and, at the end of his leash—represented by festive, patriotic ribbon—pulls the colorful family forward. Notice too that his feet are made of cotton.

Throughout her huge Book of Revelations, The Family and Community Suite, Robinson presses intimate and international together, history with the present day. The history of slavery is literally built into the history of the White House, as Michelle Obama observed, and scenes in Robinson's great work illustrate this. The suffering and the daily joys are all part of the same fabric. Represented by drawing in the left panel, we see slaves making bricks to build the building, their brethren chained together above the title panel. They are part of the African-American family that inhabits the House now, in a better life with a Rose Garden.

Finally, Robinson moves along in the motion so characteristic of her inner and manifest vision, reaching forward into the world. The strip of vignettes at the bottom of the RagOnNon relate the First Family to the Chileans buried alive in a mine as the world watched and prayed for their rescue. "Providencia Street" is one of several panels devoted to relating the Chilean mining disaster rescuees to our President through the generous and unifying world-view the artist took as such a blessing. Here people and animals walk down the colorful town street, awaiting or celebrating the moment of rescue that united the world in relief and joy—the emotions and the vision that Aminah Robinson expressed so magnificently in this unparalleled work of homage, promise, and love.

All photographs in this post are thanks to the excellent work and generosity of Hammond Harkins Gallery.


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