Tina Dunkley: A Treasure Trove of Narratives at Her Fingertips

By Shantay Robinson


Tina Dunkley’s life in the arts, as she puts it, “is an issue of DNA.” “I was really born into an incubator relative to family members being creative and making things all the time.” Although her parents were not artists, her mother was a hairdresser and seamstress and her father was a Merchant Marine, her aunts and uncles were always making things and she was usually in tow. So, she didn’t think it was unusual. Dunkley’s grandfather, John Dunkley, whose exhibition received a positive review in The New York Times, is one of Jamaica’s nationally celebrated artists. His exhibition John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night will be on view at the American Folk Museum in New York City from October 30 to February 24, 2019, at the same time that Tina Dunkley’s exhibition, Sanctuary for the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey will be on view at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba House from January 16 to March 16, 2019.

When in elementary school, Dunkley would visit the Brooklyn Museum to take painting courses. Then in junior high school, she took printmaking at Pratt. But visual art wasn’t her first love. She wanted to dance. When in junior high school, Katherine Dunham, the renowned African American dancer for whom a technique is named, visited her school and left two provisionary scholarships. Dunkley recalls, “During the summer it was six days a week that I danced at her school on 42nd St. in Manhattan. Two years later, the next thing I knew they put me in Aida. [Dunham] had choreographed a section of Aida for the Metropolitan Opera and I was in there dancing for the last season of the old Met before it closed.” If she had been aware of the High School for Performing Arts, she would have auditioned. Instead, she attended the High School of Music and Art. But she’s not regretful, “Everything works out the way it’s supposed to because I came [to Atlanta], discovered Atlanta University’s Art Collection, and just went down that rabbit hole for thirty years.”

Dunkley attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before transferring to School of Visual Art in New York City. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts and four months after, moved to Atlanta to attend Atlanta University. She enrolled in the African American Studies program, and her interest was in the curriculum of the African Diaspora. Quite serendipitously the funding dried up for the department, but because she was on scholarship she was able to continue to study. What happened when she was writing her graduate thesis altered the course of black art history. She encountered a collection of artworks by black artists in the basement of the school’s library that had served the university and its surrounding areas for thirty years but hadn’t been shown for about ten.

In 1931, Hale Woodruff who had been working and living in Europe was invited by the president of Atlanta University to teach art. While there, Woodruff started the collection in 1942, through annual national juried exhibitions that ran until 1970. Discovering the collection in 1978, Dunkley wrote about it for her master’s thesis and then asked if she could be the curator for the collection. And from 1980 to 1987, that’s what she did until the university got into some financial trouble, and her position was one of the first things to go. On retainer, Dunkley was still able to serve as the steward of artworks that were getting loan requests to be placed in exhibitions because she made the case that no one else on staff was familiar with the collection. After her leave from Atlanta University, Dunkley moved on to Georgia State University Art Gallery at School of Art and Design, (now the Ernest Welch School of Art and Design) under the direction of Larry Walker. During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Dunkley produced a project for the Olympics that profiled the Atlanta University Center and the King Center, which helped to obtain a couple million dollars to rehouse the permanent collection in a new University Gallery, now the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. The president of the university asked that she return to oversee the renovation.

While a student at SVA, Dunkley had no idea the artworks found in Atlanta University’s collection existed. She states, “So, here I am in the early 70s at SVA, and I’m listening to an art history professor teach, Art Since 1945, and there’s no mention of any artists of color and then I end up down south and there’s this magnificent trove of incredible work by African American artists that these museums and curators know virtually nothing about.” Dunkley had worked with the artworks of many of these master artists as Director of Clark Atlanta University Collection. In reflection she mentions Charles White, Augusta Savage, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, and Hale Woodruff. When asked if there is a particular artist who inspires her, Dunkley is apprehensive. She says, “I feel cautious when I answer that question,” as many artists historical, as well as contemporary, move her in their own way. On her discovery of these artists, she says, “I was chasing information, something that I believed existed. And not only did it exist; it existed in astonishing and monumental form. So, we can now observe how it’s just gotten bigger from there with our postmodern artists. God let’s not even go there.”

While working diligently to maintain her career, Dunkley was also a caregiver to her parents. When her mother passed in 2005, she had her last solo show, although in the years between then and now, she’s been a part of several group shows. Though she worked as an art administrator, she never really left her practice behind. Retiring from Clark Atlanta University Art Museum in 2015, allowed her to return whole-heartedly to her artwork. She considers herself a multimedia artist, but she was trained in and has a degree in painting and sculpture. As an undergraduate, she was big into abstraction. But when she moved to Atlanta her work became figurative. Engaging with the people pulled her in the direction of figuration because she was so moved by their narratives. These narratives about people she would encounter became a recurring theme in her work. “Anytime I learn of an amazing story, I’m compelled to respond to it,” she says.

Dunkley received a Kellogg Fellowship for international development in the early 90s where she taught painting and design to marginalized communities of youth in Brazil who were looking for sustainable projects from which they could gain skills to generate income. The fellowship lasted two and half years for which she travelled between Brazil and the United States. Dunkley is inspired by narratives that are uncommon, as she recalls a story told to her during the time she spent in Brazil of how a church was built for and by enslaved Afro-Brazilians. As a conduit or vehicle, the universe allows her to communicate information by listening, interpreting, and transmitting that intelligence.

Tina Dunkley, Arktype Sustenance series: Blessed is the Fruit of Free Labor.  Serigraph, 2015

When her uncle, the last person from her mother’s generation passed, Dunkley returned to Trinidad, where her family migrated to the United States from. What she found out would change her perception about her heritage. She found her own uncommon personal narrative. Between 1815 and 1816 a group of runaway slaves were faced with the opportunity to move to the Southern region of Trinidad for helping the British navigate the American terrain during the War of 1812. About 800 of them chose to relocate to the island. They described themselves as Merikins, a creolization of the name American. To put this in perspective, Dunkley’s ancestors were enslaved Africans in America who would migrate to Trinidad and then returned to America, the land they helped build as free men and women. These beautiful, bold, and brave people were able to free themselves from the confines of slavery to create a lineage of descendants in freedom. When we hear about the Maroons living in the mountains in Jamaica or the Quilombolas in the hinterlands of Brazil, we respect them for that bravery. To realize they are your ancestors is buoyant. This little-known story spurred Dunkley to write The Merikens, a book for middle-school aged children about her family’s heritage. She’s dedicated her latest exhibition Sanctuary for the Internal Enemy: An Ancestral Odyssey to them. She’s responding to their/her narrative.

Had Dunkley not moved to Atlanta, she would never have discovered the art in the basement of Atlanta University’s library. She credits the city with allowing her to use her skill set. Because of the cultural programs put forth by Mayor Maynard Jackson, she was able to work at a Neighborhood Art Center. She worked all over the state with the Georgia Council of the Arts for four years teaching. And she worked with the Olympics to profile historical sites. Dunkley’s is an amazing narrative. It’s one that may be told for years to come. Her upbringing in the arts through the bloodline of a nation’s celebrated artist, her discovery of a treasure trove of artworks by important historical African American artists, and the realization of her ancestry should be the matter of lore. She says, “When I think about how I hated the subject of history in elementary school and high school, unaware that it was because it was erroneous, omitting the roles of African Americans in the “making of America”, and their participation in all of the wars, I was so astounded to discover my family’s role in the War of 1812. It’s mind boggling to me.”

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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Tina Dunkley on the Atlanta University art collection from KSU MHHE on Vimeo.