COLUMBUS, OH — The Yoruba philosophy of ase or ashe (from àṣẹ) speaks to a way of life with specific spiritual and social constructs, but also has a particular influence on Yoruba artmaking. Aside from the precise rituals associated with deities, there is a general notion of piece-work — countless individual parts, each given the same hierarchical importance, repeated and combined to form greater wholes. Though Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson was from Columbus, Ohio, and spent the balance of her prodigious seven-decade art career there, a conscious connection to the lineage of West African art-making and African-American history seems to emanate from every surface of Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Robinson’s House and Journals. The retrospective of her work at the Columbus Museum of Art is based on the 2015 bequeathal of the majority of her estate (including one dog, who was re-homed) to the museum, and reconstructs not only the history and finished works of this hometown hero and 2004 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, but presents her art as it surrounded her in life.
The foyer of the exhibition welcomes us directly into Robinson’s home by way of its literal front doors, mounted to the left. Like most things in Robinson’s house — which has been converted by CMA into an artist residency project in her honor — it is embellished with her imagery. The lefthand wing of the exhibition deals with Robinson’s roots, growing up in the Pointdexter Village neighborhood of Columbus — a postwar housing development that is captured in vivid detail in numerous paintings that convey her memories of a thriving and celebratory African-American community. This section also features highly decorative dolls, fiber books whose pages swell with embellishments, and countless drawings — on envelopes, on boxes as small as matchbooks, and scrap paper of all sizes. One has a sense, looking at Robinson’s work, of a conceptual wellspring so deep that any strike brought water to the surface. Robinson’s oeuvre indicates a lack of preciousness with ideas and an eagerness to experiment that comes only with the confidence that there are many more to come.
In her Raggin’ On catalog essay, “Sankofa and Contemporary Art,” Lisa Farrington invokes the Twi word which speaks of studying the past in order to navigate the present and plan for the future. This comes through strongly in the righthand wing of the exhibition, which walks us out of Robinson’s roots, and towards a reconstruction populated with artifacts from her sitting room: packed bookshelves, homemade holders for paintbrushes, trunks carved linocut-style with the words “precious memories” and “sacred pages,” all surrounding a throne that bristles with modeled and varnished human figures — totems to people of importance in Robinson’s life.
These ancestral voices are of fundamental importance to Robinson’s worldview; in them, she connects to the obscured lineage of Africans brought to the Americas, and through them, accesses their collective, genetic wealth of memory and storytelling. In an epic tapestry — a sort of long-form fiber scroll that Robinson referred to as a “raggin’ on” — she traces a journey of souls (indicated as buttons) from Africa, through the Middle Passage, a period of enslavement, emancipation, to a family portrait featuring her mother and father and two babies slung in bindles, before continuing on past them into the present and future. Other works in this section map the stories of Robinson’s “Aunt Themba” — a real relation and guiding spirit who takes on tall-tale proportions in the artist’s remembrances — and a joyful portrait of the Obama family.
The button as visual synecdoche for people is one of Robinson’s signature motifs, and perhaps serves as a kind of mascot for the idea of ase that permeates a body of work that brims over any vessel that might contain it. From largely simple materials and renderings of humble, everyday people, Robinson transfigured the wisdom of the her ancestors and the power of lost artifacts. The show at the CMA, and the museum’s dedication to preserving her archive and home is a fitting legacy for an absolutely singular artist who spoke to and for her collective community.
Raggin’ On: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s House and Journals continues through October 3 at the Columbus Museum of Art (480 E Broad St, Columbus, OH). The exhibition was curated by Carole Genshaft and Deidre Hamlar.