Black History Month Artist Spotlight: Aminah Robinson
February 20, 2021
“I began drawing at the age of three. My father would give me wood to paint on and paint in little enamel tins. My studio was under my bed…I never had any doubt in my mind about being an artist.” – Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson was born Brenda Lynn Robinson in 1940 and raised in Columbus, Ohio, within the close-knit community of Poindexter Village, one of the country’s first federally funded metropolitan housing developments. Poindexter Village replaced what had been a semi-rural African-American community known as Blackberry Patch. Robinson’s family told her stories about the old neighborhood, including colorful local characters like the Chickenfoot Woman and the Crowman, who carried a pet crow on his head. Robinson later wove these figures into her artistic world.
As a little girl, she learned how to draw and how to make books from homemade paper and “hogmawg,” a collection of mud, clay, twigs, leaves, lime, animal grease, and glue, from her father. Her mother taught her weaving, needlework, and button work.
“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
Through her admired aunt, she gained a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling and the importance of carrying down others’ stories through the generations.
Despite being raised in a Catholic family, Robinson followed the beat of her own drum, and would defy her parents by sneaking out of her house by climbing out a bathroom window to take drawing lessons at a local community center. “It didn’t matter how many spankings or Hail Marys I got,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer. Robinson never went out of the house without a sketchbook, and honed her figure-drawing skills at every opportunity.
Robinson received her formal art training at the Columbus Art School (now the Columbus College of Art and Design). She continued to live and work in Columbus. She attended the Columbus Art School from 1957 to 1960, then studied art history and philosophy at Ohio State University (1960 to 1963), Franklin University, and Columbus’ Bliss College.
In 1958 Robinson got a job at the Columbus Public Library, where she did illustration work and also took the chance to read about the history of the city’s African-American neighborhoods, enriching her fund of stories. She created sculpture, rag paintings, paintings on cloth, drawings, and books. Many of them are about her family and community and about the stories she has been told by her elders. She also researches the lives of abolitionists, civil rights leaders, musicians, and writers and depicts them in her art. Robinson participated in the March on Washington D.C. in 1963. She married an Air Force serviceman, Charles Robinson, in 1964 and followed him to several bases around the country, finding illustration jobs with a telephone company in Idaho and a television station in Mississippi. The couple had a son, Sydney, who inherited his mother’s creativity but went into engineering instead after witnessing his mother’s dire financial conditions.
Robinson’s marriage ended in 1971. Back in Columbus, she got a job with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, teaching art at the same community center—the Beatty Recreation Center—she had sneaked out of the house to study at as a child. She worked there until 1990, making very little money and at one point going on welfare after she was hospitalized with a back injury—she had no disability benefits. Through a clerical error, Robinson was overpaid. She returned the extra payment to the state in installments of ten dollars a month, spread over ten years.
In the mid-70s, Robinson’s reputation spread out from her Columbus neighborhood in widening circles, beginning with an Ohio Arts Council grant she received in 1979. That year, she embarked on a tour of Africa, visiting the sites from which slaves began their deadly journeys to the Americas. It was there that Robinson took her first name, Aminah, adding it to her birth name, Brenda Lynn, during a religious ceremony.
Her art became grounded in her belief in the African concept of Sankofa, learning from the past in order to move forward.
Robinson viewed art-making as a never-ending activity, and the artist continually revisited and reworked old works. Robinson dubbed her series of quilted mixed-media works, which she was constantly adding to, Button Beaded Music Box RagGonNon Pop-Up Books or “RagGonNons” for short.
She traveled on extended journeys to countries in Africa; New York City; Sapelo Island, Georgia; Israel; and Chile. Each journey has resulted in a series of art that often includes a RagGonNon. In her paintings, she would overlay such things as buttons, shells, pieces of fabric, and costume jewelry onto watercolor, gouache, and other more traditional artistic media to create expressive portraits of African-American leaders and artists throughout history, as well as of everyday people she loved and encountered.
Her diverse body of work ranges from drawings and woodcuts to complex sculptures made from natural and synthetic materials, such as twigs, carved leather, music boxes, and “hogmawg.” The artist’s “Memory Maps” (multi-media constructions of appliquéd cloth panels) contain “the idea and symbols of Africa—as a reservoir of culture, as the abode of spirits and inspiration for form and meanings that have traversed the great transatlantic African Diaspora to the Americas.” Many of Robinson’s works were large in scale, and some were enormous narrative scrolls that she might work on for years or even decades, incorporating the full range of materials she used.
She did not have a computer, but she read the Columbus Dispatch every day from cover to cover and the New York Times on the weekends. She watched the news on television every day. Once she did the research she determined her subject matter and she began working on watercolors. Simultaneously she began carving a series of woodcuts. She enjoyed the physical strength required to gouge out the wood with a chisel-like tool.
Robinson was reluctant to part with her works, which she never considered really finished but sometimes conceded were sufficiently “resolved” to display. She began to agree to museum exhibitions in the early 1980s. A one-woman show at Chicago’s Esther Saks Gallery in 1984 was followed by others at the Akron Art Museum (1987 and 1988), the Columbus Museum of Art (1990), the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (also 1990), and various colleges and university art galleries. As her fame grew, she sold some works if she approved of the buyer; they commanded prices of up to $20,000 apiece.
Robinson had been the subject of nearly two hundred solo and group exhibitions before the 2002 retrospective, Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson at the Columbus Museum of Art. An advocate for social justice as well as women’s and African American history, Robinson was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2004. The foundation recognized her as a folk artist who excelled in “celebrating themes of family, ancestry, and the grandeur of simple objects in drawings, paintings, and large-scale, mixed-media assemblages.”
For Robinson, the boundaries between art practice and everyday life were porous: each moment was another opportunity to record African American culture and transform lived experiences into works of art. She called her art “the missing pages of American history.” Her intention was “to celebrate the everyday lives and culture of Black people and their endurance through centuries of injustice.”
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson died of heart disease in 2015, she bequeathed the entirety of her estate to her hometown museum, the Columbus Museum of Art. In honor of what would have been Robinson’s 80th birthday in 2020, the museum announced plans to convert it to a residency for Black artists. The ribbon cutting for the Aminah Robinson Residency took place in July 2020, after a renovation project supported by a $200,000 Columbus Foundation grant.
Resources and Links
The Late Artist Aminah Robinson Dedicated Her Life to Recovering America’s Lost History. At Last, She’s Finding a Bigger Audience
Aminah Robinson Biography – Mentored by Barber, Used Animal Skin for Chair Seat, Created Tapestry – Columbus, Art, Told, and House – JRank Articles https://biography.jrank.org/pages/2534/Robinson-Aminah.html#ixzz6n1nfZhFt
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