Hammond Harkins Gallery attracted a healthy crowd for the opening of its show of new work by Aminah Robinson. Within it was a smaller circle of activity concentrated around the smiling artist.
Stepping away from the constant stream of admirers for a few minutes, Robinson took a break for a smoke and a couple of questions. Standing straight and rail-thin, a black turtleneck forming a pedestal for her shaved head, strong bone structure and multiple gold hoops, she looked like a statue. But she spoke like a poet.
“Three elders set me on the path,” Robinson said, describing her current work as rooted in the teachings of a trio of family members.
When Robinson was three and hadn’t yet spoken, her father engaged her in “observational penetrating” of her surroundings. It forced her to speak and to develop the attention to detail that fuels her memory-based artwork.
Such finely honed powers of recall also served her well for the stories shared by other relatives.
Her current exhibition, “Chronicles of the Village: Songs for the New Millennium,” illustrates the folklore spun by her uncle Alvin Zimmerman over years of conversations with his niece (a second show based on stories from her great-aunt, a former slave, will debut this fall at the Columbus Museum of Art).
He was born and raised in the “Blackberry Patch” on the near East Side, future site of the Poindexter Village housing project where Robinson was raised, but his tales date back to 1200 A.D. — “in a time before time,” Robinson recalled.
Zimmerman imparted legends of “The Ancients,” early African pioneers traveling the waterways of what is now Ohio to form settlements throughout the area, including the Blackberry Patch.
Robinson presents scenes from their journey on handmade paper adorned with her signature mix of buttons, fabric, thread, and sketchy but assured lines. The faces that fill bird-shaped boats and a buckeye forest are full of the wonder of discovery.
But these beautiful assemblages have a radical intent, connected to the impending demolition of Poindexter Village and the current lack of plans for the land. It’s stated bluntly in a handwritten statement that calls the situation “a crime against humanity,” and condemns it as part of a cycle of displacement for her community.
In visually celebrating the history of this place, Robinson all but demands respect for it. She also issues a call for help with preserving it.
As she said, “I can’t do it alone.”