Aminah Robinson: The Transformative Power of Her Art

By Shantay Robinson

By the time I reached nine years old, I was deep, deep into transforming and recording the culture of my people into works of art. The magnitude of research and study of Afro-Amerikans is what I have dedicated my life to. My works are the missing pages of American history.  Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson 

Aminah Robinson

“I think people saw her as a little strange, as a little weird. She says that she knows that. When you saw her, you knew she was different and special. You knew she had an aura. But she also had a look about her. She was nonconformist in every way. She has 10 earrings on one ear before that was popular. She was bald and beautiful and tall. And wore elegant handmade tapestries that she had sewn together. She wore art. She has a pocket in her jacket for her dog. This is Aminah,” says Deidre Hamlar, Co-Curator of Raggin’ On, an exhibition of Aminah Robinson’s artwork on view at Columbus Museum of Art. “I think she challenged people. And I think that challenge today is such a good thing. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s more accessible and people are ready for it right now. But she was ahead of her time.” Although, early on, Robinson might not have been openly embraced for whatever reason by the African American community in Columbus, they do have access to the work from her early career until her death in 2015. Hamler says, “We are creating access points for the black community to know her better and to know themselves better by looking at her work.”

Given their lengthy relationship, Robinson left her entire estate, including her home and her dog, to the Columbus Museum of Art. As a high school student, Robinson had art in an exhibition there and, over the years, numerous exhibitions followed including her first major exhibition in 1990. Co-Curator Carole Genshaft says, “I think she probably knew we were the only institution in town that could possibly do this work, and that’s why she left it to us. I think she trusted us.” The Museum assembled a community committee that voted unanimously, along with the board, that her house be turned into an artist residence for African American artists. Genshaft says, “And that’s very fitting because she loved mentoring other artists.”

Genshaft thinks Robinson believed she was on a mission from God. And Hamlar notes that she thinks she saw herself as a modern-day griot in that her work really told stories. Hamlar explains, “She was born in the forties. So, it was the forties, the fifties, it was right there at the time of the great migration. She told that story in actual time. She displayed the historical references to enslavement and the middle passage, but she also talked about the Civil Rights Movement.” Genshaft mentions, “One section of the exhibition is called Street Cries. I think it really demonstrates this kind of dual thing that was going on. Street Cries is about the lively street life that African American community in the 40s and 50s that had its own bowling alley, its own theatre, its own restaurants. And kids were free to run wild, in a way, not really because everybody kept an eye on them. There was a dual existence that she really brings to the fore and makes us realize what was going on then and what continues.”

Robinson grew up in an African American housing complex that Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited personally to do the ribbon cutting. She created artworks that depict this monumental day. Years later, when there were threats to tear this historic housing complex down, Robinson spoke out in opposition. Hamlar says, “Because of her voice and because of her artwork depicting the place and the history, I think that was one of the reasons why there now exists a museum and cultural center in two of the buildings that were preserved. They were preserved on the land. Now all these other buildings are built around it. But because of the history she made so well-known in our community, those buildings were saved partly because of what she’d done to bring light to what would have been meaningless to those developers.”

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Sunrise, 1996-2012

All of Robinson’s work is about black people, and when not directly about black people, it is from the perspective of a black woman. Hamlar says, “She lifts people up. She has such an honor and respect for elders. And an honor and respect and this exhibition as well for the people who came before. She speaks highly of the authors, the writers, the women in the neighborhood. She depicts women in such a way. She illustrates them with dignity. You can see them in their hats and in their church clothes and with their families. And she dignifies black people in places that general communities might think as lowly neighborhoods, that are pushed to the side, that are ghettoized. She dignifies these people.” Hamlar continues, “She gives people dignity. She gives black people a way to see themselves in a very elevated and proud way because that’s who she was, and she really does a great job of portraying that in her work.”

“We interviewed a lot of people for the exhibition as well and that will be the final section called Conversations,” shares Genshaft.  “And the word that came to mind and that we heard from almost every single person, and there are about 30 of them, was the word sacred. She just was this spiritual sacred kind of person who I think she herself believed she could see beyond just with her eyes. She always said she could see with her ears. Our hope is that we bring some of that magic to the exhibition, so that visitors can feel it the way that we did.” Hamlar adds, “She was very humble. When people would ask her about how she was doing. She would say I’m just walking, basically to say, I’m just walking through life. I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s not anything special per se. This is who I am. And she performed that task on purpose all of the time.”

Genhsaft notes that the media Robinson works with is particularly important. “She really believed that everything in the world was a possibility to make creative. I say she’s an alchemist. She just turns everyday things into objects of beauty. I think that’s something that reaches everybody regardless of their background,” she says. Genshaft describes a packet of little portraits Robinson made with hand-made paper and blue dye that represent several African American women including Sojourner Truth and Maya Angelou but also includes relatives and other women from Columbus. In contrast to this precious little booklet of portraits, Robinson’s Raggin’ Ons, for which the exhibition has been named, are phenomenal pieces she worked on until the end of her life. Hamlar notes that a needle was still in the work when they found them. “She would work on them for years. And I think I’m in awe of those because how could someone have a vision that lasts that long.” Genshaft explains, “we picked Raggin’ On as the name of the exhibition because she had a different view of art. I can remember another exhibition where a piece was going to be part of the exhibition and she continued to work on it. And I said, ‘we really need to frame it.’ And she said, ‘if you need it just take it and then you can bring it back to me and I’ll keep working on it.’”

Robinson held on to a vision for almost her entire life. She says, by the time she was nine years old, she had already begun recording her people in art.  She held on to this objective, this calling, this goal, this mission to tell stories of her people through her art. And though people in her community might not have initially understood her, she was not deterred. She existed through some of the most meaningful moments in African American history – the great migration, the Civil Rights Era, and the first African American President. And she recorded it all in the 150 journals found in her home. From stories about rubbing elbows with dignitaries at the March on Washington to stories of being a single mother, Robinson’s poetry and prose in those journals, in connection with the art she made on view at the Columbus Museum, advance her mission of capturing her people’s stories from the Middle Passage to Poindexter Village.  It is a mission that will not be lost with her passing. It will continue in all those lives she touches through her art and through all of the African American artists who have residencies in her name.

Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Robison’s House and Journals will be on view at the Columbus Museum of Art from November 21, 2020 to October 3, 2021

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Shantay Robinson 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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