Sunday, May 27, 2012


Carded wool, left; and wool after water felting, right.
Display at "Made by Hand," The Works, Newark, Ohio, May 2012
Felt has been made for millennia in central Asia, where it's used for clothing, rugs, and as the coverings for yurts, the homes of nomadic people on the steppes. Its great advantages as are that it's portable and it's breathable, providing winter warmth and summer ventilation. Though we in the West think of felt as being made from the wool of sheep, it can be made from what wool's available—like camels' if you're in Kazakhstan, or bunnies' if you have enough. 

Felt's the material that artist Joseph Beuys told such a compelling story about. Maybe he was and maybe he was not rescued by Tartars after an airplane disaster left him near death during World War II. His saviors salved his body with fat and rolled him in warm, breathing felt to heal. Beuys used felt as medium and as symbol in his work.
Joseph Beuys, Felt Suit, 1970.
Felt, sewn, stamped.
National Museum of Scotland, GMA 4552.

A current show at the Ohio Center for Industry, Art, and Technology (The Works) in Newark, "Made by Hand," features felt as a material for expression. Co-curated by Chris Lang and Lyn Logan-Grimes, the selected artists include Lang, Renee Harris, Sharron Parker, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart, Yiling Tien, and Megan Henderson.

In the curatorial statement, Lang explains, "wool fibers react to hot water, soap, rubbing and pressure, causing the scales on the fibers to open and mat together allowing it to be molded like a piece of clay. More control over the fibers can be achieved with the use of a felting needle to mat dry wool fibers together, allowing felt artists to paint and sculpt." So despite its roots in the farm necessities and its hand manufacture, felt is described to have the function of other materials that are used to make decorative or non-functional items. And, indeed, in The Works' show, most of what is displayed sits along this spectrum of non-utilitarian craft to fine art. 
Chris Lang, Rows and Rows.
Note that even from a distance, the textures of the various regions
 are discernable and distinctive.

Chris Lang's work in two dimensions is pictures of variegated rural scenery. Working from a natural colored felt canvas (underlayer), she dry-felts her own hand-spun yarns with the barbed felting needle. For the skies, she mixes shades of blue wool together with long strands of white to create the effect of a fine afternoon's high sky with cirrus clouds. Each of the rows of crops has a unique look because she has selected either single-colored yarn or a mixture of loose wools to represent it, thus creating nuance and variety of color and texture. Lang understands and uses the properties of her material—she does not attempt to "paint the picture" but makes the picture that she can make from wool. I appreciate an artist's thorough knowledge and well integrated use of specific materials.

Chris Lang, Rows and Rows. Detail.
Lang's relationship to wool work comes from long association. She and her husband acquired sheep for their children's 4-H project (4-H is an American rural children's development organization: Head/Heart/Hands/Health), which led to the acquisition of her own flock. In a YouTube video she both explains that background and demonstrates the basics of felting technique.
Chris Lang, Mother Nature's Footstool

Bird's nest detail
The finest piece in the show is Lang's heirloom Mother Nature's Footstool. This wonderful, folkloric covering for the cushion and legs of a stool has extraordinary appeal for the eyes and fingers. It has the friendly feel of someone as welcoming and familiar as a favorite pet. Lang uses felt in an ebullient variety of ways—sometimes closely matted, sometimes soft and curly (uncarded wool, she tells me). There is as much textural interest and the natural forms are fascinating. Vines, fruits, mosses, leaves, and even an egg-filled bird's nest, dependent from one leg, create a fairy microcosm. Magical as this work is, it still strikes me as a furnishing, as something real. A child would love to sit down on this. Feet unwinding in felt slippers would happily rest here.

 Chris Lang, detail from Mother Nature's Footstool
Yiling Tien is an active crafts instructor in the Columbus area whose work demonstrates the pleasure of felt as craft material. She shows felted three-dimensional objects that are pleasurable to hold, play with, or admire as decoration: jewelry, jewelry boxes, the balls and toy cat in these photographs. The pretty things Tien sees in her imagination can be realized through felt.
Yuling Tien, Sarah the Cat
Yiling Tien, Four Spheres

Tien's work made me realize that I saw nothing she made that could not have been made of clay or even glass. This reminds me how important the touch, weight, malleability, and texture of a material are; the ease with which it is colored or modified; its durability and portability. In her statement, Tien mentions that she had almost given up on felting when all she knew was the rigorous water method, which would require much heavy work with hand forming objects. Once she understood dry, needle felting with its additive process, she fell back in love with it.

Sharron Parker, Capturing the Light
At the fine arts end of Made By Hand, Sharron Parker's wall hangings are like studies in color, light, and geology, calling on the particular property of felt to be at once dense but light in weight, to represent a massiveness it does not embody. Both Capturing the Light and Capturing the Light II (the latter in the neighborhood of 35" x 50;" the former a little smaller), when seen from across the room, seem like arid landscapes in the dramatic light just before sunrise or sunset. Then they are vivid blades of extremely saturated color: I wondered that it  didn't drip and pool on the floor.  

Sharron Parker, Capturing the Light II
From a distance, I wondered if these fantastic color studies couldn't have been made of paper, or canvas? Approaching them, though, the nature of the material and its importance became clearer. Not as stiff as paper nor as draping as woven fabric, felt has sculptural qualities and mass without heaviness or hard edges. Parker takes advantage of the possibilities that wool and felting needle hold in the ways she twists and folds different colors of wool together, creating valleys, inlets, and gulches defined both by color and actual depth. In the areas with less detail, the felt drapes like sandstone dried after eons in water, a condition that the wet felting process imitates well.

Parker, Capturing the Light II, detail.
I'm very happy to have seen The Works' felt show. It makes me long to see a bigger institution with more resources do a more comprehensive show, one that would cover Asian roots, and the architectural and fashion uses of felt. 

Parker, Capturing the Light, detail.
In the meantime, I can recommend to others this good video that shows Mongolians preparing felt from sheep's wool to cover yurts. Architonic magazine—far from Mongolia, at the other end of architecture and design—has a June 2012 article about felt in contemporary furnishings and wall construction, praising especially its ecological profile. And this site will take you to my dream show long past (2009) at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, Fashioning Felt: Another addition to the long list of fascinating shows I've missed!  

Floating cloud of dyed, carded wool welcomes guests
to "Made by Hand" at The Works.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Twentieth Century Reality Show: African Art at Indianapolis

What amazed me the most in my heady tour of the newly redesigned African galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art—and there is so much competition in the astonishment department!—is that so much of the collection dates from the twentieth century. 

"But wait!" I think. Artifacts from far away; things that look so strange (read: "primitive") must be old. They are centuries, eons away from our world view. Aren't we used to visiting museums to find the past preserved?
View of The Eiteljorg Suite of African and Oceanic Art. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art
The core of the outstanding Indianapolis collection was the 1989 gift of Indiana businessman Harrison Eiteljorg (1903-1997). He and his wife donated over 1,200 works to the IMA. The museum has built further on the Eiteljorg collection with acquisitions and gifts that make it now one of the nation's premier sites for African art, with outstanding pieces representing all areas of the continent. It's also large enough that it's able to be presented thematically, emphasizing such topics as body adornment, relationships to ancestors, power, and royal arts.
I explored with the simplest questions in mind: "What is this thing? What's it for?"  For I find it staggering that nearly all the intricate, highly decorated, beautifully crafted things in the collection are three-dimensional pieces of functional art.  Almost nothing in the gallery, however imaginative or formally ingenious, fails to serve a purpose. However astonished I found myself, however gratified my imagination, everything was still firmly planted in modern or contemporary reality. This headpiece in the form of a crocodile was used by Niger River Delta men's associations in their practices because predatory animals are considered guardian spirits. 

I loved these two realistic, female forms with their empty, outstretched hands, the one standing, the other kneeling on a base with a fish, as if by a riverside awkwardly depicted by a carver. Too beautifully modeled to be beggars, perhaps they were religious suppliants, I wondered? Quite the opposite, the notes informed me: They are deities. For some people, it is quite natural that they look exactly like human women. The standing figure apparently would be kept in a shrine. Her image is thought to protect and heal those who make sacrifices to her. The kneeling water deity expects to have her hands filled with offerings.

In the 20th century African exhibit, the lines we in the West draw so sharply between human, animal, and spirit are broken at best. But I found myself thinking after a while that they weren't perhaps so strange to anyone who has read books to children who are learning about the forces of the world, in nature and in themselves. 

This extraordinary head crest made by the Efik people of Nigeria left me completely agape with its weirdness and beauty. The tough extravagance of the hide-wrapped horns that grow from this small head exquisitely inlaid with marquetry designs makes it hard to believe one's eyes. A label suggests that this represents a "spiraling hairstyle." My own reaction though, made me laugh remembering David Small's book that my children and I loved, Imogene's Antlers. It's the story of a girl who wakes up one morning to find that she's sprouted an antler rack of stunning size, and that it's real. She takes it in stride, leaving those around her to find ways to cope. In the Museum, we can elect to be either Imogene or her fainting mother, appalled by the very sight.

A men's association from Cameroon used the guise of an elephant when they worked under royal blessing to keep the peace. Despite the enormous pendulous trunk, this pachyderm mask nevertheless sports a human nose, suggesting to me a genial and perhaps unconscious blending of the gifts of wisdom and succor found in both species. Atop a Yoruba royal head in Nigeria, little white-eyed, birds rest among big, red, beaded berries, demonstrating regal pomp in a manner unusual to eyes accustomed to diamonds set for their own sake.
Yoruba crowns

A Yoruba men's society fashioned a phenomenal headdress in the early 20th century, the Magbo Society Mask. The Magbo Society enforces community penalties but also insures burial for every member of the society, regardless of rank or wealth. The mask, therefore, is decorated with thirteen figures that represent the many kinds of people that constitute the community: a soldier, a farmer, musician, and nursing mother among them.

Hinge-jawed masks from the Ogoni people of Nigeria are character studies that focus on unique features and attitudes. A cap mask from Cameroon, made of wood, pigment, shells, hair and various fibers, has no realistic features, but to the people who made it, it clearly represents a king: Note the beard and the extravagant use of prized cowrie shells.

One of Harrison Eiteljorg's most beloved objects was a mask from the We people of the Ivory Coast, composed of wood and cloth, nails, shells, used cartridges, leopard teeth, porcupine quills, fur, pigment, and on and on. Were it not in a case but still in the world, each generation would add yet more to it, for the idea is that such a mask enters the world as a piece of wood that accretes offerings forever, gaining potency with each generation's enhancements. The idea is that it embodies forest spirits that become accessible through dreams. It could have been a model for Maurice Sendak's wild things, a sort of benign, protective terror. 

For me, the Eiteljorg African galleries are a wonderland where the real world of a century we've just left is treated with joy and reverence; where nature and humankind are presented in myriad ways, each one observant, penetrating, and packed with meaning. The abundance of points of view, the multitude of solutions to the same practical and design problems (how to make a pipe; how to indicate the presence of royalty) fill me with the delight of pure abundance. 

man's hat, Pokot people, Kenya
I live in an efficient world, thrifty of its media, thrifty in its aesthetics. Culturally, we agree on little, so symbolism isn't a normal or potent mode for much communication. The use of disguises and personae are either illegal or appear silly. We are literal-minded enough to think that one must live either with theology or atheism. We do not see the world as a dynamic, nuanced, wondrous place that is our habitat, rather than our dominion.

The innumerable worlds of Africa merely hinted at within these rooms in Indianapolis make this viewer long not only for modern Africa, but for the the world I never notice around me for lack attention and imagination—how it sifts and drifts around me, perhaps changing form and color, animated with wonder back behind the squawk of the alarm clock and the aggravating sequence of traffic lights.

kind feminine spirits

Photographs by the author of materials on display in the Eiteljorg Galleries of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Ron Busch/Jack Schantz Quintet at Bungalow Jazz House Concerts

"The Bungalow"

The Bungalow Jazz House Concerts are where Columbus, Ohio jazz insiders go for a good evening of friendly jazz. House concerts at the hospitable and eccentric Victorian home of Becky Ogden, empress of music and imagination in our city, are intimate and comfortable for audiences and musicians alike. Nothing beats the musical rapport possible between instrumentalists and listeners when they are two yards apart in Ogden's big living room with the acoustical-tiled ceiling and her beloved Mason & Hamlin piano that delights Mark Flugge and Bill Dobbins

On concert evenings, folks stroll in, drop their financial contributions in the basket, and are likely to be greeted by a squawk from the extraordinary roaring parrot even before one of Becky's friends, enlisted for the job, point newcomers the way to the table laden with food that friends contribute, pot-luck style: Friends always hope that Rosemary Litzinger will have come and brought something she baked. There's beer, soda and coffee in the kitchen; bring your own bottle if you like. And please bring your own kids. 
Early arrivals can stroll around Becky's lovingly maintained gardens, tour her rooms full of her ingenious, antique collector's fanciful tableaux, or chat with friends and musicians until the music starts.
Because of the small size of Ogden's room and the comparative ease with which she can reach her network of jazz fans, she has been able to book musicians Columbus might not otherwise hear as they visit local friends or pass between New York and Chicago. She has booked trumpeters Brad Goode and Dominick Farinacci, pianists Terry Waldo and Tamir Hendelman, guitarist Gene Bertoncini, and flautist Ali Ryerson. She regularly books the most imaginative and energetic players in Columbus, like the Aaron Scott Trio (with Dave Dewitt and Derek DiCenzo), or pianist Bobby Floyd, and saxophonists Bryan Olsheski and Michael Cox. She provides the ideal intimate stage for the torchy queen of local vocalists, Mary McClendon; and she gives the stage to new blood, the up-and-coming college ensembles and soloists. Recently, she added vibes to her collection of instruments that includes not only the admirable piano but a Hammond B-3 organ.

Jack Schantz, Bob Fraser
On May 5th, the Cleveland-area Ron Busch/Jack Schantz Quintet played Bungalow Jazz. Ron Busch, on vibes, has long been a force in Cleveland jazz not only for musicianship on his queenly instrument, but for his being co-owner of the legendary club, the Bop Stop. The club's doors open now only for private engagements, but its importance as a locus for Cleveland jazz was inestimable. 

Jack Schantz, professor at the University of Akron, was the artistic director for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra until he retired from the position in 2009, handing it over to his former student, Sean Jones, late of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The liner notes to his first record, Speechless (Azica AJD-72201, with Chip Stevens, piano; Jeff Halsey, bass; Val Kent, drums; and Howie Smith, alto sax) describe the person and player very well: "When you first meet Jack Schantz...his manner is so quiet and unassuming that you would never imagine that here is a man who has been trumpet soloist with the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman Orchestras. Then he steps onto the stage and a complete metamorphosis occurs! The musician before you is now a commanding presence, able to meld power and sensitivity..."

The guitarist Bob Fraser has long been central to Cleveland jazz (he and Busch were high school classmates and have held down the scene for years). In April he received a call-out in Jazz Times for his collaboration with vocalist Ki Allen at the Tri-C Jazz Festival. Their partnership is of long-standing.

Doug Richeson, bass, and Jim Rupp, drums, are pillars of the Columbus jazz community who perfected their skills during long careers in big bands and touring with major vocalists, Richeson having spent years with Tony Bennett. You can listen to a fascinating interview about Rupp's early career here.

Ron Busch
My delight in an evening of jazz like the one the Busch/Schantz Quintet delivered is the pleasure of an eager listener who's receptive to whatever the ingenuity of the ensemble produces. As in any art form, poor technique will elicit lackluster response, but heartless display of fine technique will too. For me, the ideal is when performers demonstrate the kind of reflection that I come to art to find. It's great when formal beauties are enhanced by the musicians' own human responses to the content of the music.

Busch/Schantz fulfilled my listener's dream with a beguiling performance of  "I Fall in Love Too Easily." The well-known lyrics by Sammy Cahn often reinforce the mood of reflection in Jule Styne's tune: "I fall in love too easily/ I fall in love too fast./ I fall in love too terribly hard/ For love to ever last./ My heart should be well-schooled/ 'Cause I've been fooled in the past./ And still I fall in love too easily" etc. 

Their performance demonstrated beautiful ensemble work. Schantz's solo set a moody atmosphere that he'd try to rise out of musically, but the effort to achieve something more swinging failed, as if a heavy hand kept pulling him back. And so it went with each subsequent solo. The entire performance was unified by a sense of experience—the difficulty of overcoming regret, the  tenuous capacity to "bounce back." It was an extraordinary performance not only for the tightness of the musical ensemble, but also for the musicians' deeply shared awareness of what happens in life. 

Something that would pull this ensemble together in any event, it seems to me, is the wonderful instrumentation. To my ear, the vibraphone is one of the most beguiling of sounds and here it's at its best. The sound of the vibes is like a peppermint. It's "cool." "Cool" affects many senses: blue and silver colors, low temperatures, but also physical hardness. The sound of vibes, however, while generated by mallets on metal ("hard" when it is initiated) resonates so far and decays so slowly that it becomes extremely "soft" as it lingers in the air and collects subsequent tones around it. Like mints, vibes' sound is cool without retaining the other important sensory associations we make with coldness. 

What's more, though vibes are percussive, they also resonant like an electric guitar. They can provide a wide, resonant foil for the narrow focus a trumpet. A vibes/trumpet quintet is on the face of it a brilliant collection of sounds. Here's a Busch solo from Kurt Weill's "Speak Low." Not only is Busch's dance across rhythms a delight, but so is the sound of his instrument in its relationship to bass, guitar, and drums. 
Bob Fraser
Bob Fraser's elegant guitar solo from another outstanding ensemble performance, of Steve Swallow's "Ladies in Mercedes," shows off not only his own artless, warm playing, but the beauty of that guitar-vibes pairing. Their voices pass back and forth between similar and distinct, adding another kind of sonic interest. Rupp's propulsive shakers and brisk percussion pop in contrast to the guitar and vibes, making this, for me, a magical two minutes. 

Amidst all this shimmery chordal dynamic, the flatter, focused trumpet sound has a special place, which Schantz uses to great effect. Within his two-minute solo he creates a virtual narrative, moving up the scale with long notes into a more suspenseful passage of eighth notes and triplets that bursts into a pair of held high notes constituting a musical and emotional break. As if we have been watching the cool lady in her in convertible gliding along the ocean parkway, those notes break the climbing line into irregular patterns that fall all over the beat—it's dizzy with excitement. The whole perspective changes: Perhaps we're no longer observers but now we are in the Mercedes, we are that woman, feeling the tumbling exhilaration and freedom.
Doug Richeson
Richeson showed his gift for emotion and storytelling too in his many solos during this gig. Every bassist is dramatic in his or her physical relationship with the (full-scale, upright) instrument. Richeson sits on a tall stool and surrounds the bass with his large upper body, holding his broad shoulders parallel with the instrument's, his head resting low over the neck. In this solo from "All or Nothing at All" (followed by Schantz), Richeson achieves both a simplicity and privacy that I find as touching as musical. The slow decay time of its notes creates a hushed cloud around a bass solo in any event, and here Richeson uses it to create something that seems particularly personal. He plays like someone who speaks love and truth at the same time.

In the past year I've several times heard people predict the demise of jazz. This forecast has been made on the basis of small turnouts for performances or audiences disproportionately representative of the "blue-hair" generation. Recently, the host of a jazz series  announced a promotion that rewarded concert-goers who would bring to the next show guest who were under forty. The host himself, and all the performers save one on that occasion were at least fifty, and most well over that.

Jack Schantz
On the one hand I can appreciate the nervousness of artists who see the ravages of time in the core audience for their art, with no big influx of youth knocking at the doors. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if jazz has not grown so broad that it doesn't now include several generations with several audiences. They may share jazz history, but their histories in the world are very different indeed. 

Columbus has two universities with flourishing jazz programs whose students are a vital part of the local scene and keep local clubs at no loss for good music. There is of course great collegiality and exchange between the elders and the youth in town, but I think it is true that there are distinctions  in the music. The generation that grew up while bebop and post-bop flourished knows jazz in a different way than the generations who grew up with bebop as a legacy, and sophisticated rap dominating the airwaves. The life perspectives of musicians in their 60s and 70s have to affect the way they interpret jazz standards; new generations will bring their cultural and personal experiences to them as well. 

I doubt that the audience for an ensemble like the Busch/Schantz Quintet is about to disappear. I think that a mature, jazz-loving audience prizes the refinement of their musicianship, and understands the clarity of the group's observation and reflection—the valuable content of their music. This theme statement to Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now" epitomizes this point, I think. Of course the music is available to anyone with ears to hear and a mind to consider it with. But performance is a self-portrait too. In Schantz's solo 
and in the patient, certain placement of every chord, note, and beat behind him, we hear a performance with aggregated personal histories as the musical momentum. It's a thematic statement with an awful lot to say.
Jim Rupp
A good experience of jazz gives the audience not only the great music, but the awareness that the music is coming from the fact that those musicians are glad to be there, working—playing—with other musicians whose instincts and ideas they appreciate. You can see these successful relationships; you certainly hear them. (Even those these Cleveland and Columbus units don't work together quite so regularly as they might in one town, Ohio is one town for these purposes.)

As the evening closed at the Bungalow, the band asked for suggestions from the audience. It was the night of the "super-moon," when the moon was the closest to the Earth that it will be for another thirteen years, so they ripped into "Old Devil Moon" at Ogden's suggestion.

They closed, though, on a final suggestion, that proved the perfect thing, Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring." I'm so glad to have been there with a recorder, to be able to enjoy again the tempo, the voicing, and the tempered ebullience of their beautifully balanced performance: Fade to delight.

Becky Ogden serves pasta to Jack Schantz. "Make yourself at home."

I am grateful to Thomas A. Johnson who edited my recording of the May 5, 2012 Busch/Schantz session, and to Sarah Hippensteele of Ash Secure for helping me post the recordings.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Aminah Robinson's Oral History for the Hard of Hearing

Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio are currently showing the first part of Aminah Robinson's new series, The Chronicle From the Village—Songs for the New Millenium. Part two of the series will appear at the Columbus Museum of Art later this year, second in a series of what Robinson imagines with an ironic roll of the eyes to be of indeterminate length.
Afrikans Entering the Ohio Valley in 1200 AD. Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson.
Mixed media on paper, 21 x 55.5."
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Most of these mixed media works are horizontal. They are painted, drawn, and collaged on dark brown paper that has the look and heft of hand-made. The pieces require two sheets, which are joined by Robinson's signature row of hand-sewn two- and four-hole buttons chosen for their dark, earthy, and neutral colors and materials. The palette she's chosen favors loamy brown, and blue mixed with white in a way that suggests foam on the water or wispy clouds dancing in a bright sky.

These new works are lyrical, rhythmical compositions that emphasize long lines and sinuous curves. Robinson can make us feel like she has executed the central flowing line of women's head and well-occupied hands in one, long, elegant gesture made by her own hand, as if that hand were as big as the ones her women and elders always possess.
Guinea Village in Belmont County, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Mixed Media on paper, 21 x 55.5"
Courtesty, Hammond Harkins Gallery
Detail, left, above
Author photo, through glass
Detail, right, above
Author photo, through glass
But of course she has not done that. This enchanting work draws its life from vivid exaggerations (the sizes of hands and arms) and by great compressions (the distances between figures, the foreshortened space from foreground to background). The feel of spontaneity is distilled from many such individual moments in a carefully executed composition. The liveliness comes through Robinson's acute observation and experience of materials. Perhaps it is more difficult to create the picture of contented serenity than one of dramatic conflict.
Throughout her career, Robinson has celebrated her heroes. Some are African-Americans of public achievement, like Sojourner Truth, or fellow artist Faith Ringgold. But her special love and commitment are for the childhood heroes in her family on the Near Eastside of Columbus, and to the history of her neighborhood.  The central preoccupations of her work arise from her early experiences in this world as a member of a household that included a great grandmother who still recounted her experience of the Middle Passage—of her own abduction from freedom in West Africa to slavery in Georgia—and of Uncle Alvin, the family griot, the storyteller/historian.
ODetailOne Day in 1307 AD: King Abubakari II, 1985-92
Button Beaded RagGonNon Music Box Pop-Up Book: cloth, thread, buttons, beads, paper, paint, graphite and music boxes,
55 x 155", Detail 
Columbus Museum of Art, gift of the artist
Robinson has been working with the present material for years. The detail above is from a work she began in 1985, showing a teacher pointing to a model of Abubakari's fleet. 

The topic arises from Uncle Alvin's stories about ancient Africans who crossed the Atlantic and reached Ohio via the Great Lakes or the Ohio River during the 13th century A.D. The current series interprets their passage and their village life in the forests.

Songs for the New Millenium, Aminah Robinson
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries
Many who love Robinson's art (see my August, 2011 article in this blog) for aesthetic (or investment) reasons, seem to overlook this content as the harmless fulminations of an adorable eccentric. ("They think I'm crazy," Robinson tells me, spinning her finger in circles by her head, in the sign of the loose screw of unsound gear.) For years she has been making us of the Columbus are research libraries and geological surveys to dig into the basis of Uncle Alvin's story.

In Songs for the New Millenium Robinson records what she's concluded in a manner that suggests not only a pedagogical program but a sacred one. Three hand-lettered documents on vellum—prepared calf- or sheepskins—constitute the Teaching Tools. There are one mission statement and two maps. One map shows Ohio by county, highlighting the sites where there is evidence suggesting the possibility of ancient African settlement. The map of her childhood Columbus neighborhood records its development and documents its alterations as one would expect the thorough-going historian to do. She is such a historian.

Songs for the New Millenium, detail. Robinsons' historical map of the near eastside of Columbus, noting the changes
 of street names, homes of notable residents, sites of community importance, structures once venerated and now gone.

On these precious teaching tools, a motley figure more likely to be seen in a childrens' book than on the Magna Carta points out the critical information. This wise serpent (in some West African traditions, the serpent is the incarnation of deceased relatives) is followed by the words, rendered in large, colorful lettering, "Uncle Alvin says..." Uncle Alvin's memory is the host and guardian presence for the spirit of this pedagogical enterprise; the audience is children or the childlike, who are wise enough to listen to the authority of elders. Children need to learn their history and understand their spiritual legacy.

Uncle Alvin appears on the vellum works in this show, even one that is dominated more by image than by words, Sacred Life of the Neareast Side. Massed male forms stand inside their pirogue that is decorated with scales of precious metal colors—gold, solver, copper, bronze—to fold a sail as they ease into a cove created by a tree with green roots. 

The work is formed with two skins that are hand-stitched together without buttons, leaving the image uninterrupted. The brown skin of the figures, the brown tree trunk, and the contrasting shine of the vessel, all against the warm, neutral color of the vellum add to the compositional dignity and solemnity of the document. As in a cupped hand, the image unites sustaining Nature, the power of Art, and the strength of massed human will and effort. These are values that appear again and again throughout Robinson's work. 
Sacred Life of the Neareast Side, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
48 x 20.75," vellum and calfskin, 2012
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries

Detail, Erie Village Founded by Afrikans, Aminah Robinson
Mixed media on paper, 28.25 x 62.25."
Author photo, through glass
For Robinson, racial history and family history are part and parcel of the central theme: being as fully-realized a human being as possible. Because this theme seems universal —inclusive, if you will—and because Robinson gives it dignified and beautiful expression in her work, Robinson is often discounted as being an African-American artist, at least locally. "There's no protest, no rage, no line to divide any groups," seems to be part of her appeal.

It's ironic that both white and African American audiences can enjoy Robinson's humane art yet for years turn blind eyes to central preoccupations that now she is making explicit to the point of stating in words. This series, for instance, really is about the history of African settlement in American, a topic neither Robinson nor Uncle Alvin was making up. Without much effort, anyone can find the published theory that Emperor Abubakari II of the Malian Empire (today's Mali, Gambia, and much of western Africa) explored the Atlantic with a large fleet and established North American settlements. A BBC News article from 2000 explains that though the theory is not without champions, archaeologists tend not to be among them because there is little physical evidence. Those who study it most carefully are students of the griot tradition. While Western scholars may be skeptical about the authority of oral tradition as an accurate vehicle for history, that point-of-view is far from universally accepted.
The Storyteller, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson
Mixed media on paper, 2010
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries

Uncle Alvin was a griot. Robinson is herself a griot for generations that don't believe in them, don't listen to oral history or care to. 

Robinson's conclusions about the nature of the diaspora—the result of slavery, or of exploration?—are only one aspect of the career-spanning work she is trying to unite in her new series. For her, the deepest history of Africans in America is intimately related to the current issues in her beloved neighborhood. In particular, she finds heinous the city's current plan to abandon and raze Poindexter Village, the first public housing in Ohio. Opened in 1940 by President Roosevelt, Poindexter housed not only Robinson's family, but generations of highly respected African American families. For years it has kept many families off the streets; these people have been the subjects for many Button Manuscript pages similar to "The Storyteller," in which she portrays the dignity and humanity of neighbors most reduced in circumstances.

It is because Robinson pictures the dispossessed as they deserve to be seen that her bedrock positions on illegitimate power and inhumanity are overlooked and her art is appreciated as pretty and fundamentally toothless. She shows the Africans ancestors as explorers, not slaves. She links the power to overcome neighborhood problems to the strength of ancient forbears, faithfully transmitted through millennia by oral history. That storytelling tradition legitimates as more than poetics her vision of the homeless whose rags become raiment.

Chronicles from the Village, the first of the Teaching Tools, then, is of the utmost importance in her entire body of work. It is unique for being an immense written document. In it she states what she has been suggesting visually throughout her career, but now states unmistakably in words. She tells us that she is repelled by inhumane treatment of the vulnerable, and that African Americans have suffered the cruelest of this from the beginning of their experience in the Western Hemisphere; that she makes her work in the hope to illuminating this, and making a difference. 

Robinson is getting old. She has worked all day, every day, in private concentration, for her whole, long career. Chronicles of the Village is dated, "1958-2012" in an indication of the force of decades behind her thoughts. 

Because few will get the opportunity to see this document, hand-written on vellum in many colors like sacred texts of the Renaissance, I've copied its text below so that Robinson's statement is recorded. (Spellings are Robinson's.)


One day, when the Morning come...

The body of work coming out of Chronicles from the Village: Songs for the New Millenium, is a reminder of what came before when morning come, and to address issues facing all of us today in the new Millenium. I encourage each person who was raised on the Neareastside of Columbus, Ohio to testify in putting their recollections on paper, canvas, in song, film, or however one chooses to create and tell their own stories.

Generations of poverty, lost jobs, 2nd class schools; again and again history continues to repeat itself! An indigenous people, whose families lived on the sacred land of the neareastside of Columbus, Ohio since the 1200's.

The New Millenium: the uprooting of an indigenous people, their traditions, culture, and history, and the scattering of this way of life to the winds. Many of the families will fall through the "cracks" and end up homeless; living under bridges, in cardboard tent communities and in shelters. The failures and misdeeds toward any group of people or human beings is again, a History that is being repeated.

When morning come...since the days Afrikan people were kidnapped from the HOME for thousands of years, forced into slave houses in chains on the Transatlantic Crossing, and shipped to slave markets to be auctioned for a live of slavery of plantations throughout the Caribbean and South and North Amerika. She slaves were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized & subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names, their traditions, their languages and their cultures. Afrikans in Amerika continue in the New Millenium to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow Laws that fostered discrimination and segregation; wrongs committed against a people and their descendents who suffered under enslavement. Jim Crowish, segretation and discrimination, wrongs that continue today by uprooting an indigenous people out of Poindexter Village and the Neareastside of Columbus, Ohio. I personally see/and view the situation as a crime against humanity.

When Morning is my hope, that issues of sacred land of Poindexter Village will bring about a Resolution to rectifying generational lingering consequences of injustice of any human being or group of people.

Chronicles from the Village: Songs for the New Millenium is based on the Oral Tradition from the elders of my family and community & I have also provided an historical account of events arranged in order of times but without analysis or interpretation with loosely connected episodes also arranged in the Oral Tradition.

The Village are Chronicles from Columbus and throughout Ohio, Afrika, Puerto Rico and throughout Amerika and the Globle World.

When Morning the timelessness of all life, water still flows, roots still bear witness to a new day and deep in the wellspring of this ancient life the reminder of what came before—when Morning Come, and that the integrity of its inner life be preserve through its culture, traditions and history is reaffirming its base future re-development on its traditional worldview.

March 23, 2012/ Manuscript Page/ the Teaching Tools:vellum: calfskin & sheepskin/ 1958-2012/Inventory1774

Detail, Sacred Life of the Neareastside, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, 2012
Courtesy of Hammond Harkins Gallery.