Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson has been composing Symphonic Poem for more than fifty years. It is a highly varied body of work, ranging from simple drawings and woodcuts to complex sculptures animated with music boxes and inventive three-dimensional, mixed-media cloth paintings she calls “RagGonNons.” Repeatedly, she details a journey through history that begins in Africa hundreds of years ago and continues today, confronting struggle, oppression, and despair and celebrating joy, freedom, and hope. Robinson is particularly concerned with the idea of community, seeking not only to preserve the history and culture of existing communities but also to resurrect long-vanished ones.
Born Brenda Lynn Robinson in Columbus, Ohio, in 1940, the artist was raised in a bustling, close-knit neighborhood that became a continuing source of inspiration for her work. The year she was born her family moved to Columbus’s newly completed Poindexter Village apartment complex, one of the country’s first federally funded metropolitan housing developments. After graduating from high school, Robinson received her formal art training at the Columbus Art School (now the Columbus College of Art and Design). Although she is an enthusiastic world traveler and has enjoyed and been inspired by extended residencies and study trips in both this country and abroad, she continues to live and work in Columbus.
During a 1979 trip to Africa, Robinson met a holy man who gave her the name Aminah, Arabic for “trustworthy.” Upon her return to Columbus, she legally added it to her given names to become Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson.
Robinson has exhibited her art throughout the United States, and one of her commissioned works is a centerpiece of the recently opened National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. In 2004 she received a MacArthur Foundation Fellows Grant, one of the so-called “genius awards” given to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.”
Throughout her life, Robinson has practiced skills she learned from her father and mother as a child. Her father taught her how to make books from a material he called “hogmawg,” a homemade mixture of clay, mud, sticks, and animal fat. From her mother came the “hand-me-down” traditions of button- and needlework. From both parents came an enduring respect for the family’s elders, their traditions, and their stories. Demonstrating her strong familial grounding are two complex memorial works she calls “RagGonNons.” Dad’s Journey chronicles her father and his ancestors, and Precious Memories is a tribute to her mother. Each encapsulates in visual terms Robinson’s fundamental belief in the African concept of Sankofa, which holds that one has to learn from the past in order to go forward.
the neighborhoods and pages in history
Robinson’s love of Columbus, Ohio, is evident in her ongoing effort to document its neighborhoods, especially those that no longer exist, such as Water Street, an area known as the Blackberry Patch, and the circus community of Sellsville. Her work also recalls earlier incarnations of the present-day neighborhoods of Poindexter Village and Mt. Vernon Avenue. While Robinson bases these works on details related to particular places, the theme that emerges is universal: the importance of family and community wherever and whenever they occur in the world. In the ongoing series Pages in History, an extensive collection of sculptures, works on paper, cloth paintings, and quilts, Robinson records figures and events, both celebrated and obscure, from African American history.
Each time she travels, Robinson prepares herself through extensive research in order to “absorb the spirit” of her destination. Immersing herself in the life of the people in the places she visits, she records her observations in hundreds of sketches that lead to works in a variety of media. Her experiences become part of an artistic vocabulary that she continues to employ long after her trip has ended. For Robinson, these journeys are pilgrimages in search of universal histories and ancestors.
Among Robinson’s earliest memories are the many occasions on which she and her father made books with whatever materials were available. As a young child she was seldom without her sketchbook, and by the time she began art school, she was already combining text with images. Through the close relationships she developed with older relatives on both sides of her family, she recognized the importance of preserving and passing on the countless stories they shared with her. Books became her chosen vehicle for these ancestral narratives.
October 8, 2005
Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, on view at the Brooklyn Museum February 24 through August 14, 2006, will present nearly 100 works by the celebrated African-American artist. Robinson’s mixed-media pieces draw on cultural identity, travel to ancestral homelands, and memories of the Poindexter Village neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, where she was born.
In addition to traditional paintings, sketches, and sculpture made with paint, ink, charcoal, and clay, Robinson’s major works are composed of found objects such as fabric, buttons, pieces of leather, stones, leaves, bark, twigs, and a special medium she calls “hogmawg,” made mainly from mud, grease, dyes, and glue.
Through drawings, paintings, sculpture, puppetry, music boxes, and complex constructions she calls RagGonNons, Robinson reflects on themes of family and ancestry, and on the grandeur of simple objects and everyday tasks. Similar to quilts, but with different materials, RagGonNons can take years to research and create and continue to evolve in response to others’ experiences of them.
Robinson was aware of her artistic talent at a very early age and was encouraged by her family. She began drawing at the age of three, and her father gave her pieces of wood on which to paint. He also taught her how to gain inspiration from her environment and how to make hogmawg.
The city of Columbus and her neighborhood of Poindexter Village, a federally funded metropolitan housing development on the east side, remain a constant source of Robinson’s artistic imagination. At eight years old, she first exhibited her work on a makeshift clothesline on the corner of Champion and Mt. Vernon Avenues, to attract the attention of people attending a nearby religious revival.
In 1955, at the age of 15, Robinson began attending Saturday classes at the Columbus Art School (now the Columbus College of Art and Design). She enrolled full time two years later after graduating from high school. In 1959, she won first prize in an illustration contest sponsored by Seventeen magazine.
In 1968, while working as a senior illustrator for North American Rockwell Corporation, Robinson was introduced to woodcarver Elijah Pierce, with whom she developed an ongoing relationship and mentorship. In 1979, a group of her Columbus friends raise money to send Robinson to Africa, where, an Egyptian holy man gave her the African name “Aminah” and she legally changed her name to Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. The next year a solo exhibition of her work Afrikan Pilgrimage: The Extended Family, was presented at the Kojo Photo Art Studio in Columbus.
In 1983, Robinson participated in her first group exhibition, at the Carl Solway Gallery in Cincinnati. Later that year she began The Poindexter Village series and the Sapelo series. The latter is based on her trip to her father’s ancestral home, Sapelo Island, Georgia.
Robinson’s work has been presented at a number of museums and galleries including the Akron Art Museum, Ohio; the Cleveland State University Art Gallery; The Drawing Center, New York; the Oakland Museum; the Baltimore Museum of Art; and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Robinson was recently awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellows Grant of $500,000, which is awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.”
Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art (where it was on view December 12, 2002, through April 20, 2003) in partnership with Arts Midwest and the Ohio Arts Council. Charlotta Kotik, Curator and Chair, Department of Contemporary Art, is coordinating the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation. The exhibition will move to the Toledo Museum of Art in 2007.
A full-color catalogue, published by the Columbus Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, will accompany the exhibition.