How Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Made History Into Art

The recently deceased  was a lauded artist, who kept history alive through her work. In beautifully crafted sculptures, woodcuts, drawings, books, and a variety of mixed media paintings, she told the stories of her African-American ancestors and community, as well as those of the people and cultures she encountered on her extensive travels. As she honored others through her work, so she deserves to be honored and remembered.
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1940, Robinson came of age in a close-knit family and community, steeped in the stories of her elders. Her roots as an artist extended back to this environment. When she was still young, her father taught her how to draw and to assemble homemade books from materials including mud, twigs, and animal grease. From her mother, she learned weaving, needlework, and button work. But it was her twice-weekly conversations with her great aunt—who had been born into slavery in Georgia—that formed her vision and gave her the subject matter for her work. Through her admired aunt, she gained a deep appreciation for the power of storytelling and the importance of carrying down others’ stories through the generations.
Guided by her great-aunt and, later, by the African concept of Sankofa, which holds that we must learn from the past, Robinson composed narrative works out of a wide-ranging assortment of materials. In her paintings, she would overlay such things as buttons, shells, pieces of fabric, and costume jewelry onto watercolor, gouache, and other more traditional artistic media to create expressive portraits of African-American leaders and artists throughout history, as well as of everyday people she loved and encountered.
She also created compelling narrative scenes, which ranged from quiet vignettes of local street life to sweeping panoramic views of history-making events. As she once summed up her motivation as an artist: “And so even though our ancestors guide us, keep us, they also give us voice so that we can pass it on. And I guess that is the purpose of my work, simply, to pass it on.”
Karen Kedmey