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Filling The Blank Pages: The Art Of Aminah Robinson

Columbus Art Museum

Aminah Robinson is a name familiar to many people in Columbus. When the African American artist died in 2015, she donated her house and studio to the Columbus Museum of Art. There was an enormous treasure trove that no one had ever seen before. We can now see many of these works in a show at the museum, Raggin On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynne Robinson’s House and Journals.

When you walk into the exhibit, you first see a large chair. It’s kind of a throne with intricate carvings in leather and tree roots. Curator Deidre Hamlar describes the chair’s origins.

“If you look at the tree roots that are there, her father found those tree roots for her which forms the base of the seat, and so she carved the leather and tanned it and smoothed it out so it could become a seat,” Hamlar said.

Robinson carved a family of African descent into the leather below the words “Gift of Love.” On the posts of the chair, she added sculpted figures of her father, mother, her mentor woodcarver Elijah Pierce and other respected elders from her life. Hamlar remarks on the chair’s role in Aminah’s life.

“It’s comfortable because she sat in this chair. She used this chair. Again, going back to this concept of thing not being touchable, this was touchable. Not only is it touchable physically and tangibly, it’s touchable because of the people in it,“ Hamlar said.

Leroy Robinson, Aminah’s father, supported his family as a custodian in a public school. And he was a talented artist in pen and ink and other media who inspired Aminah starting at age three. Co-curator Carole Genshaft explains Leroy Robinson’s philosophy of art.

Genshaft said that Leroy Robinson taught his daughter Aminah that, “You can always be an artist, and you don’t have to have money because you can make dyes from beets and onions. You can make new paper from paper that other people throw away, and turn it into pulp, and dry it and use it to make books.”

courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art

Aminah Robinson also learned sewing and textile arts from her mother, using whatever cloth and buttons were at hand. Robinson trained at the Columbus Art Academy. Yet it was her dad who taught her what she called “observation penetration.” He trained her to look closely and memorize before drawing.

Hamlar said this process respected the lives of people Robinson depicted in the Black neighborhoods of Columbus, as in the painting “Man on the Doorstep.” Hamlar said that Robinson “would not stand in front of him and draw. She would do her process of memory, and she would take this back to her home and then she would draw this man.”

Robinson would often see this man on a neighborhood stoop. In the picture, he is hunched over with his knees tight against his chest, and his eyes reveal deep anguish. His skin is more blue than brown, and his bare feet are overly large. Hamlar comments on the importance of the feet in this painting.

“His feet probably walked a million miles,” Hamlar said. "I think of her respect for ancestors. She probably says his ancestors walked a while to get him to this place. And here he is, and that’s probably his only foundation, his feet. He doesn’t have a home, so his foundation is his feet.”

Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist

Robinson used her memory and research to depict the vibrant Black Columbus of her childhood in glowing watercolor panels. Later, Robinson drew on her family history of slavery in Georgia and their migration to Ohio.

Hamlar points out two large paintings in this series. The first is called “Midnight Torchlight Procession” which takes place in Africa. The second painting is titled “Themba Bears Witness,” and Hamlar points out that there is fire in this painting too. “And the fire in that piece,” notes Hamlar, “is the fire of the Ku Klux Klan burning people to death, and I just think the juxtaposition of these two pieces with the fire really kind of struck me one day, that she used fire in such different ways. So even though they went through the fire in this piece, they come out stronger on the end."

Curator Carole Genshaft agrees. Genshaft has read over 100 of Robinson’s journals of artwork and writings. Genshaft repeats a quote from one of Robinson’s journals. “She says in one of her journals she was filling the blank pages of American history, and that’s what she was doing with the lives of ordinary and extraordinary African Americans.”

Raggin On is showing at the Columbus Museum of Art until October. There is free admission to the exhibit Auguwt 13 -15 during Aminah Celebration Days.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.
Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

David Seitz