The Brooklyn Paper
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The vibrant, complicated artworks of Aminah Lynn Robinson are as unique and engaging as the artist herself.

One might expect a woman born in 1940 to have a grandmotherly poof of curls on her head, but Robinson’s dome is sleek and her ears are trimmed in rows of gold hoops. The MacArthur "genius" grant winner says she "never had any doubt in my mind about being an artist. I had my first exhibition when I was 8-years-old. I hung my paintings on a clothesline with pins."

GO Brooklyn spoke with Robinson at the Brooklyn Museum, where samples of 50 years of her boundless creativity are on display in "Symphonic Poem." Community is one of the overwhelming themes in her art, which ranges from painting to sculpture to needlework to elaborate, never-quite-finished pieces that she calls "RagGonNons."

She’s been inspired by her hometown of Columbus, Ohio - and Poindexter Village, the federally funded metropolitan housing development where she grew up - to create several pieces that incorporate her research into the city’s history. One such work is a festive painting on cloth, "Life in Sellsville" (1981-82), which is the text-and-image portrait of a long-disappeared town settled by circus folk from 1871-1900. After "digging and digging into public records and interviewing people," Robinson was able to create an artwork - think a Grandma Moses painting in Technicolor - that painstakingly details the forgotten community down to each animal’s pen.

Robinson’s works are also inspired by the places she travels to, such as the hip-hop-inspired painting "The Canwoman Who Carried Her Home Through the Streets of New York City" (1989). The "Wall Street" sign behind the displaced woman’s head underscores the irony of a homeless woman on a street where so many have reaped so much wealth.

The artist has even been inspired by her work’s visit to Brooklyn and has created large, borough-centric woodcuts - three of which hang in "Symphonic Poem." She is also carving a door, titled "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," but Robinson said that it is so large the curators couldn’t get it out of her house, so she made 12 woodcuts instead. She said she was "touched deeply" by the neighborhoods of Weeksville, Brownsville and Crown Heights.

Her signature medium, "hogmawg" - which Robinson learned how to make from her father - is a mixture of mud, grease, dyes and glue that she uses in works such as "Basket Woman" (1984), a sculpture of a slim female figure with an elongated neck, clothed in cheerful printed fabric, layered like feathers. The figure seems to have grown right up out of her base of peanut buttery stuff and buttons, like those jaunty silk flowers waving from her hat.

While "Basket Woman" is a completed piece, "Symphonic Poem" also includes examples of Robinson’s original concept, the "RagGonNon." These literally go on and on, as Robinson works on the pieces over time.

"The RagGonNons won’t be completed until my own transition," she told GO Brooklyn.

The chair, "Gift of Love," that is dedicated to her late son, Sydney, is an example of a "RagGonNon" which she has been assembling and fine-tuning since 1974 from wood, "hogmawg," mud, leather and music boxes. Robinson said she made the chair for her son, who was also an artist, when they first moved into their first house, and he complained that they didn’t have any furniture. He died in 1994 at age 27.

Over the years, this chair has come to resemble a rustic throne with its many tree branches and hand-tooled leather seat.

But Robinson, who adopted the name "Aminah" - Arabic for trustworthy - after a 1979 trip to Africa, is also a citizen of the world, and she explores her African-American heritage in pieces such as the harrowing "Nightmare of Horrors" which depicts slaves falling to their deaths from a boat and "One Day in 1307 AD: King Abubakari II," a portrait of a West African king.

Whether her subjects are regal or a Poindexter Village resident making soap, Robinson’s works explore those universal themes of family and community - reminding the viewer that we are all inextricably linked to those who have come before us and have a responsibility to be good to those among us now.

"Symphonic Poem: The Art of Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson" is on display through Aug. 13 at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights).

On Sunday, April 23 at 3 pm members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic will perform a chamber music program, "Homespun," inspired by "Symphonic Poem." A free gallery talk by a museum guide precedes the concert. For tickets, call (718) 488-5913.

Admission to the museum is $8 adults, $4 students and seniors, free to children age 12 and younger. For information, visit the Web site or call (718) 638-5000.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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