Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015) was born in and was a lifelong resident of Columbus, Ohio, though her wide travels informed her art, her vision, and her spiritual life. Aminah created a style that defies customary artistic categories by blending the folk traditions she learned as a child from her parents with the formal training she received in art school. From her mother she learned 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” – a mixture of mud, clay, twigs, leaves, lime, animal grease, and glue.
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.
Aminah also sought inspiration for her work through travel. She 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. Her studies in the summer of 1998 inspired the creation of Sacred Pages: People of the Book, a series of cloth and rag paintings and elegant drawings on fragile, deerskin parchment, created during and after a month-long residency in Israel. Chilean Suite is the body of work inspired by her 2004 residency in Santiago, Chile. No matter how far she travelled, each body of work connected to the others and to her own Columbus community.
For Aminah, a favorite form of expression was the book. In addition to woodcut and lithographed books, she created one-of-a-kind handmade books from pieces of cloth she encrusted with buttons and animated with music boxes. These magnificent volumes have the feel of medieval manuscripts and serve as the perfect vehicle for the eloquent, poetry-like stories she told about people and places she knew from memory or from careful research of historic figures and events. Starting in 1992, she 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 26 African-American spirituals.
Robinson saw herself as a bridge beginning 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 reclaimed history and gave 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.
Aminah’s works have been brought to us through the Ohio Arts Council which awarded Aminah Robinson the prestigious Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts in the category of Individual Artist.
Biography: Courtesy of and adapted from the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA)