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Delivering joy, wonder and deep thoughts, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson at the Columbus Museum of Art

In this bright review of "Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Robinson’s House and Journals," Janyce Denise Glasper dives into the expansive exhibition-- which includes paintings, sculptures, books, photographs, and historical recreations of Robinson's home-- and was filled with wonder and praise. "Raggin' On," which Janyce says would interest both children and adults, is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through October 3, 2021.

Three women, all of whom wear bright, patterned dresses, work alongside one another on a quilt, sticking in swatches as they chat, in front of a blue background.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, “Quilt Meetin’ (Catchin’ Up on the Gossip),” 1994. Photo courtesy Janyce Denise Glasper.

I truly became a kid in a candy store wandering along the incredibly whimsical Raggin’ On exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, which celebrates MacArthur winning Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015), one of the most important artists to hail from Columbus, Ohio. This special retrospective brings together works from Robinson’s childhood to adulthood, highlighting all the in-betweens of a multidisciplinary creative master of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, doll making/puppetry, quilting, and writing.

Raggin’ On starts with large photographs of Robinson and her real-life house on Sunbury Road. The unexpected sight of her exterior front door installed in the gallery space will surprise some visitors. On this carved wood with various brown hued faces and large, expressive hands squeezed between bright, energetic shapes outlined in black. Perhaps by making the outside match the inside, she was warmly inviting family and friends into a joyous, creative environment. The museum curation echoes this sentiment— every work delivers a sense of magical enchantment or a thirst to know the true story behind the work. Around the corner of the door lies a recreated living room featuring homemade objects and collected beauty. She crafted unique holders for her paintbrushes. Eccentric sculptures either operate figuratively or melt like candle wax drippings. The library offers a glimpse into Robinson’s influences; books on Jacob Lawrence, the Gees Bend quilters, Lois Mailou Jones, Vincent Van Gogh, advertising, art history, and design. The door and living room set the tone for the expansive show— that Robinson was extremely resourceful with her surfaces, tools, materials, and references.

Recreation of a living room, with a decorative, dramatic throne-like seat at the center, surrounded by artwork and dark wooden chests filled with books.
Recreation, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s Living Room, featured in “Raggin’ On” at the Columbus Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Janyce Denise Glasper.

Robinson’s first models are herself and her two sisters— earlier oil paintings are classical studies yet it is watercolor that she seemed to love most. “Self Portrait,” rendered at age eight, focuses on a pensive pigtailed girl in a patterned dress, a young thinker. “Sunday Afternoon Art Lessons With Uncle Alvin,” rendered at age forty, has a pigtailed girl in patterned dress making a portrait of a dog named Pokey with her uncle looking on. While the former has the fluid transparency expected of traditional watercolor, the latter contains flat, opaque colors and shapes and includes words around the figures. “Sunday Afternoon Art Lessons With Uncle Alvin” is Robinson’s signature style— of elongated limbs and giant hands similar to predecessors Charles White and Thomas Hart Benton. However, Robinson’s saccharin palette enhances these landscape orientations that carry never ending stories about her upbringing, civil rights, ancestral history, slavery/post abolition, and life’s rare happinesses.

“Quilt Meetin’ (Catchin’ Up On The Gossip),” a rag painting on paper, has three women stitching on different sides of a huge quilt, their active hands as big as their heads. Their clothes are painted on— a pink dress with white flowers, a yellow dress with red polka dots, and a green blouse— but the quilt has various fabrics adhered. Yellow strings hold the frame up for them. In this particular work, Robinson is sharing that these gathered women are not only communal artists, they are brought together by a duty to keep sacred traditions flowing. It is a talking point and a bonding ritual.

7 sculptures-- three of books, three of figures, all of which are constructed out of fabric, beads, and buttons-- arranged in two lines (books in front; figures in back; in a museum display.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, “Button Beaded Books and Dolls” Photo courtesy Janyce Denise Glasper.

“Button Beaded Books and Dolls” are Robinson’s exploratory sculptural figures made from found wood, fabrics, beads, cowrie shells, and other objects placed behind similarly fashioned books. The six figures are unique in their own individual distinctions: pupil-less eyes, heavy beading, mismatched fabrics, differing heights. Two seem to don ponchos and three wear striking red shoes. They look Afrofuturistic and otherworldly, like surreal creatures from an Octavia Butler science fiction. The books are beaded relics that contain no typical pages.

Other display cases show more intricate quilted and beaded sketchbooks, detailed drawings, and photographs documenting Robinson’s childhood, schooling, trips around the world, her presence at Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech (she is circled in the Ebony Magazine which covered the historic event), and meeting prolific writer James Baldwin. Her original pen and ink illustrations from a children’s book called The Shaking Bag precede a recreation of her writing corner— a tight, intimate space that she used solely to read and write stories or correspondence to family and friends. Did the artist ever sleep when her vivid imagination appeared so eagerly inspired by the world around her? The answer must be no.

Thus, children and adults would enjoy Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s Raggin On for its ability to initiate conversations about curiosity. This phenomenal exhibition that delivers joy, deep thought, and wonder also honors her commendable legacy. She deeded her whole life’s work to the community of Columbus, through the Columbus Museum of Art— which in turn has successfully covered over sixty-five years of her exceptional creativity. Robinson proves singlehandedly that artists are the authentic biographers of their time on earth.

Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Robinson’s House and Journals” is on view through October 3, 2021 at the Columbus Museum of Art