NARRATING AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015) worked with a variety of materials, from fabric, to paint, clay, and found materials, making two- and three-dimensional works. Her paintings, quilts, and sculpture, many of them large-scale and made over many years, explored the experiences and legacy of her family, local community, and the broader diaspora.

Her work explored the Middle Passage, black migration, and early experiences growing up in Poindexter Village, a close-knit public housing community in Columbus, Ohio. The African concept of Sankofa was central to her practice—understanding the past is necessary to move forward.

In 2004, when Robinson she was recognized with a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, the foundation described her as a folk artist, storyteller, and visual historian. The Columbus Museum of Art organized “Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson,” the first retrospective of her work in 2002.

Her MacArthur bio said the show “was noted for its unusually large and repeat attendance.” The exhibition traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art, Tacoma Art Museum, and Brooklyn Museum.

A 2006 review in The New York Times described the retrosprective as a “prodigious new show,” that “almost overflows its galleries” where “nearly 100 pieces include scroll-like books unrolling for more than 40 feet and a cluster of totemic sculptures with built-in music boxes ranging from 8 to 10 feet high.”

ROBINSON WAS BORN in Columbus, where she lived and worked throughout most of her life. Her home was her studio. The Times reported, “she has turned most available space, including her kitchen, into work areas.”

When she died in 2015 at age 75, she left her estate to the Columbus Museum of Art. This week, the museum, in partnership with the Greater Columbus Arts Council, announced the inaugural Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Residency, which opens her home to a new generation of artists.

According to the specifications released, the inaugural 90-day residency is open to an African American “professional” artist residing in the United States and will occur between Aug. 17-Nov. 15, 2020. The residency “includes the opportunity to stay in artist Aminah Robinson’s restored Shepard community home in Columbus, Ohio, while devoting time to creating art within the artist’s home studio.”

A $2,500 award and a stipend up to $5,500 are provided and the resident artist will have the opportunity to participate in community outreach activities, make a public presentation and/or stage an exhibition.

Three national jurors—artist Faith Ringgold; Kellie Jones, author, curator, and Columbia University art historian; and Curlee Raven Holton, director and artist-in-residence at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park—have been appointed to the seven-person jury charged with determining the 2020 resident artist. The panel also includes representatives from the Shepard neighborhood where Robinson lived, the museum, and the arts council. The application deadline is March 9, 2020.

Another opportunity, the Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Fellowship, provides an unrestricted grant to a local African American visual artist living in Franklin County, which encompasses Columbus.

ROBINSON STUDIED at Columbus Art School (now Columbus College of Art and Design), had a residency at PS1 in Queens, N.Y. (before it was affiliated with MoMA), and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship enabled her to work with Robert Blackburn at the Printmaking Workshop in New York City.

Coinciding with her commitment to her studio practice, Robinson was employed by the Columbus Public Library and, for nearly two decades worked in the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, where she ran children’s programs. In 1990, she created “Life in Sellsville and Life in the Blackberry Patch,” an installation on the central staircase at the Columbus Metropolitan Library

Her travels informed her practice. She took a 1979 study tour of Africa and observed sites of the slave trade; spent time on Sapelo Island, Ga., where her ancestors were enslaved; and also visited Israel, gaining greater insight about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Closely identified with works she called “RagGonNons,” Robinson made three-dimensional, mixed-media “paintings” on cloth that visualized complex historical narratives with fabric, buttons, and other found materials. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati commissioned two RagGonNons in 2003. “Journeys I” and “Journeys II” are on permanent display.

In 2004, she had a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile. Participating in the Art in Embassies program, her work was displayed in Belgrade, Serbia, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, both in 2007.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, Robinson’s work has been the focus of three exhibitions at ACA Galleries in New York City. In 2010, ACA presented “Two Black Women: Faith Ringgold and Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson.” A solo show was on view in 2014 (“Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson: Songs for the New Millennium”) and, a year later, the gallery mounted a posthumous tribute show (“Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015): A Memorial Exhibition”).

Last fall, her work was featured in the “Columbus in Cuba | Cuba in Columbus” exhibition at the 2019 Havana Biennial in Matanzas.

The Columbus Museum of Art created Aminah’s World in 2008. Preserving the artist’s legacy, the online resource chronicles her life and work. In a short video on the website, Robinson reflects on the sources and foundation of her work.

“I guess today, in the way that I work, I must go back I guess to the 1940s, 1943, because that is where my path began. And the elders of my family and of my community began to pass down these stories, and my father made sure that I talk with my great aunt twice a week, every week, for 18 years. At the time my great aunt was close to 90 years old. She lived to be 105,” Robinson said.

“She was just a tremendous, beautiful, and kind person who knew how to give me her story. And so even though our ancestors guide us, keep us, they also give us voice so that we can pass it on. And I guess, that is the purpose of my work, simply to pass it on.” CT


IMAGES: Top of page, AMINAH ROBINSON, Detail of “Life Along Water Street,” 2003-2007 (white paper sewn with buttons, 18 in x 67 inches). | Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist; Above right, Aminah Brenda Lunn Robinson portrait. | Courtesy Columbus Museum of Art


FIND MORE about the residency and fellowship


FIND MORE about Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson on her website (a link on this page goes to a video tour of her studio) and here


Published by Harry N. Abrams, “Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson” documents the artist’s traveling retrospective organized by the Columbus Art Museum. As author and/or illustrator, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson published several children’s books including “To Be a Drum,” “Sophie,” “A Street Called Home,” and “Elijah’s Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas.” “The Ragmud Collection: Books by Aminah Robinson” was published in 2010, and “Aminah’s World: An Activity Book and Children’s Guide about Artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson” was released in 2018.


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