Columbus, Ohio artist, and MacArthur Genius grant winner Aminah Robinson said that she received a vision from God to create the art for Aminah’s Presidential Suite, one of the last major bodies of work she produced before her death in 2015. Aminah’s Presidential Suite, now on view at Columbus Museum of Art is a celebration of the election of President Barack Obama. The work embodies the hopefulness in the hearts of Americans, who like Aminah, were proud to witness the election of the country’s first African-American president.
Robinson began by researching the lives of the Obamas. 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 also began a monumental RagGonNon. A RagGonNon is complex work the artist added to over a long period of time. She believed it was never complete because those viewing it would bring new and different interpretations to it. The heart of this series is a type of work Robinson called “rag paintings.” These collages combine buttons, fabric scraps, and found objects with paint and pen and ink details.
All of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson’s work is about the bridges, connections, and journeys that link us as human beings— throughout time and place.
Her work is grounded in the belief that we must remember our past, and even more—understand it, and, when appropriate, honor it. Aminah was a strong believer in the African concept of Sankofa— the necessity to remember the past in order to move forward.
Another theme that permeates Aminah’s work is the commonalities that all people share regardless of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, or the language they speak. In 1979, when she visited Africa, she said she had to go all the way there to find Poindexter Village the, the Columbus neighborhood where she grew up. She visited many countries and saw that in each one people were taking care of their families, socializing in the marketplaces, and working to make ends meet just as they do at home.
And Aminah also believed that as people, we don’t just pop up on our own— but rather we are the product of our families, our ancestors, and the communities in which we live.
In Presidential Suite, Aminah focuses on the far-flung communities— Hawaii, Indonesia, Kenya, South Carolina — that have merged to produce President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The subject matter of this work spans generations and links neighborhoods all over the world. The work reflects Aminah’s profound joy in the election of the nation’s first African-American president and, at the same time, her guarded hopefulness that by remembering the injustices of the past, they will not be repeated in the future.
One of the most powerful rag paintings in this series is Wings of Our Ancestors which depicts the slaves who were “rented” from their owners to construct the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Aminah’s goal is not only to remember the role that slaves played in building both the Capitol and the White House, but also to honor them and their contribution to erecting these iconic symbols of freedom and liberty.
Michelle Obama in her address to the Democratic National Convention (July 2016) voiced similar sentiments, “The story of this country, [is] …the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
The election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president filled Aminah Robinson with profound joy, and the guarded hope that by remembering and understanding the past, the future would be one of greater tolerance and justice.
-Carole M. Genshaft is Curator at Large at Columbus Museum of Art
In conjunction with Aminah’s Presidential Suite, CMA presents The Obama Years: A Conversation with former Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman on October 27 at 7:00 PM. Seating is limited. Register here.