Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (b. 1940) has created a style that defies customary artistic categories by blending the folk traditions she learned as a child from her father and mother and the formal training she received in art school. A native and lifelong resident of Columbus, Robinson was nurtured by her mother who taught her family traditions of needle and button work. From her father, she learned how to make paper, books, and a sculptural material he called "hogmawg." After graduation from East High School and while attending the Columbus Art School (today, the Columbus College of Art and Design), Robinson began working at the public library in downtown Columbus. During this period at the library, she began the research that would play an important part in her ongoing bodies of work about the Columbus neighborhoods of Sellsville, Water Street, the Blackberry Patch, and Mt. Vernon Avenue. Through elegant pen and ink drawings, layered cloth paintings, bold woodcuts, sculptures embellished with cloth, buttons, shells, and music boxes, and RagGonNons (complex, mixed media works of art that take years to research and create), she documents both the physical reality of these neighborhoods that no longer exist and the spiritual essence of those who lived there. Much of her work is her interpretation of the stories she heard from the elders in her family and her childhood memories and is prompted by her belief in the African concept of Sankofa, the necessity to understand the past in order to move forward.
Robinson has also sought inspiration for her work through travel. She has created bodies of work that reflect a thorough and researched knowledge of a particular place and, in most cases, an extended journey there. In 1979, Robinson spent six weeks in Africa, and documented her trip in a series of drawings and paintings called Afrikan Pilgrimage: the Extended Family.She visited the Hog Hammock community of Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 1983, in search of her father's roots resulting in the Sapelo Series. A 1989 residency at PS 1, Long Island City, New York, inspired the New York Stories. Sacred Pages: People of the Book, a series of cloth and rag paintings and elegant drawings on fragile, deerskin parchment, was created during and after a month-long residency in Israel during the summer of 1998. Chilean Suite is the body of work inspired by her 2004 residency in Santiago, Chile. No matter how far she travels, each body of work connects to the others and to her own Columbus community.
For Robinson, a favorite form of expression is the book. In addition to woodcut and lithographed books, she creates one-of-a-kind handmade books from pieces of cloth she encrusts with buttons and animates with music boxes. These magnificent volumes that have the feel of medieval manuscripts serve as the perfect vehicle for the eloquent, poetry-like stories she tells about people and places she knows from memory or from careful research of historic figures and events. Since 1992, she has illustrated and, in some cases, authored published books such as A Street Called Home about Mt. Vernon Avenue, the center of Columbus's African-American community before urban renewal and The Teachings (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), her visual interpretation of twenty-six African American spirituals.
A major retrospective exhibition of the artist's work, Symphonic Poem, took place at the Columbus Museum of Art in 2002 and 2003 and then traveled nationally. In 2004, Robinson was honored as a MacArthur Fellow and her work was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile. Her commission for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is on permanent view in Cincinnati. In 2009, CMA organized and toured Along Water Street, an exhibition of rag paintings about life in the Ohio Valley throughout the ages. Throughout the years, CMA has acquired significant work by the artist including Gift of Love, a monumental throne-like chair representing the importance of family and community, A Street Called Home and To Be A Drum, the original art for these published books, and One Day in 1307 AD: King Abubakari II, a button and beaded encrusted RagGonNon.
Robinson sees herself as a bridge that begins with her African ancestors and their spirits and that continues indefinitely into the future. Her work is the story of people who survived and flourished against all odds from their ancestral roots in Africa to their ongoing life in Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century. Robinson has reclaimed history and given it form by documenting the stories and songs of her ancestors, the lives of African -American luminaries of literature, history, and civil rights, and the tales of the common folk who walked the streets of the Blackberry Patch, Poindexter Village, and Mt. Vernon Avenue.
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