The Talk on the Street (Part 1)

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The work of Aminah Robinson presents the heart of a neighborhood community by tapping into her memory of life in its history. For more than sixty years, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (born 1940) has been documenting the Columbus near Eastside neighborhood where she grew up. She captures the lively “street talk” of the community by combining her fond, childhood memories of Mt. Vernon Avenue and of Poindexter Village, the nearby apartment complex where she spent the first seventeen years of her life, with the stories of her elders as well as with her own research. At the same time, she portrays the community’s deeply-held spiritual groundings through expressive paintings, drawings, and three-dimensional works that depict the African-American spirituals that permeated the neighborhood. In an amazing array of media, Robinson reminds us that the capacity to remember and the ability to express our hopes, fears, and experiences through song are among the most important qualities that make us human. Street Talk and Spiritual Matters currently on view at the Columbus Museum of Art is an example of how the role of the artist is not only a person whose work can decorate, design or perform for an audience. The artist is the caretaker of the soul of the community.

Aminah Robinson, The Teachings

Aminah Robinson says all of her work is about Columbus, OH, the community, ancestors and spirits. Each of her works individually incorporate all of these themes as a wonderfully comprehensive whole. Whether they are smaller drawings of women or her long and beautifully detailed “RagGonNons” (large multimedia textile works in progress that “go on and on”), they each reflect community and history in Columbus, OH. In the scroll-like, painted cloth Memory Maps of Mt. Vernon Avenue that dominate this exhibition, Robinson blends legendary tales handed down from her Uncle Alvin, factual details gleaned from old city directories and maps, and her warm recollections of growing up in the heyday of this Columbus neighborhood, located on the city’s eastside. The subject matter of these Memory Maps and the related paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture span 1900 to the late 1950s, a period that includes some of the bleakest chapters in American civil rights and race-relations history. However, the predominately African-American Mt. Vernon Avenue neighborhood she depicts was a self-contained oasis where children felt safe and protected, where many residents did not bother to lock their doors, and where flourishing businesses, lively entertainment, and respected schools and churches served the community’s needs. As the artist describes in A Street Called Home (Harcourt Brace, 1997), a book that she both wrote and illustrated, Mount Vernon was “a self-sufficient street; it knew how to survive. People wove in and out with their horses and carts and trucks; you could hear the street cries; people bartered and bought and sold; people played and danced. Everything you could need, you could find on Mt. Vernon Avenue.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the civil rights movement gained momentum, and more and more citizens around the country and especially in communities like Mt. Vernon Avenue began challenging government, business, and civic and educational institutions to live up to the promise of equality and justice guaranteed in our Constitution. In 2008, the Columbus Housing Authority planned to demolish the city’s oldest and largest public housing communities including Poindexter Village, where the artist grew up. Aminah Robinson’s concerns is for the loss of the community’s rich history that will come with the destruction of the buildings planned for this Autumn.

Combining the beautiful colors and textures with identities of specific storefronts and names of streets and people, Robinson’s Memory Maps present a liveliness normally associated with the Burroughs of NYC. Store fronts, street vendors, and friends and neighbors crowding the streets make up Robinson’s Mt. Vernon Avenue, 1900-1957.

Looking at it, I am reminded of the work of Red Grooms. While Grooms’ work may be more humorous, both artists share a keen sense of everyday life. Like Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Edward Hopper, and Faith Ringgold, these artists capture the essence of American culture by reproducing the details of our cityscapes.

(Watch for The Talk on the Street, Part 2: Cincinnati)

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    2 Responses to “The Talk on the Street (Part 1)”

    1. jafabrit says:

      I really enjoyed your evaluation of the exhibit and her work, beautifully written.

    2. kathy says:

      I wanted to get this part out because I’ve really spent more time thinking about how we see artists’ roles in the urban centers today. A little bit about what we talked about.

      I hope to articulate some of this in part 2.

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