by Jasmine J. Mahmoud
Boundless fascination, pride, and exuberance captured my mood while touring the “Kinsey African American Art & History Collection” at Tacoma Art Museum. In late August, I traveled to Tacoma by bus to visit the touring exhibition which opened on July 31. The exhibition centers art and artifacts (from as early as 1595) collected by Shirley and Bernard Kinsey emerging from African American and Diasporic experience.
Here, specifically, are a few works that mesmerized me:
Augusta Savage’s Gamin (1929) is a plaster sculpture bust of a young black boy in bronze. His clear eyes express fatigue and wonder as they look outward. His baker-boy hat and collared shirt suggest an occupation at his young age. I found it hypnotizing to stand with him and to think of his life, as well as Savage’s foundational career as an early 20th century Black female sculpture artist.
An elongated curved nose, full dark lips, pixelated cheek contour, and wispy black hair accentuate the grayscale portrait in Jackie (1974), a lithograph by Elizabeth Catlett. The American-Mexican Black artist was also known for her angular sculptures, one of which (Untitled) graces this exhibition: a nude female figure seated with left arm upwards, bent at the elbow.
Smudged pencil and soft horizontal lines frame a face in thought in Romare Bearden’s Sketch of James Baldwin (circa 1950). This work captures that Black artist’s rendezvous with Baldwin, the foundational thinker, in post-World War II Paris, where Bearden also met Matisse and other authors and artists.
In Matthew Thomas’s triptych Absorption I, III, IV (1987), clay and acrylic black paint envelop three vertically hung plywood planks. On each, indented markings of diagonal lines, circles, dots, and grids appear, attuned to texture and scale.
With quilted cotton and appliqué, Bisa Butler’s The Boss (2006) centers a Black woman standing, perhaps in a field. Swatches of purple, yellow, blue, and white dots animate her face. Her outfit includes a red patterned head scarf and a brown textured skirt, upon which cutouts from historical produce products of cherries, pineapples, and apples patch together. Aunt Jemima advertisements line this work’s edges. With this pastiche-like assemblage, I saw humanity behind the Black women in those problematic, racist advertisements and dignity in the central figure.
In writing about the Kinsey Collection, singling out these few works feels like treason. On every wall of it’s temporary home at Tacoma Art Museum, the exhibition (and its hundreds of art objects and artifacts) blooms with reverence and celebration of African American art, history, and life. But what is most remarkable about this show — named for the African American couple who began collecting art in the 1980s — is how it skillfully illuminates how Black art and artifacts are central to understanding American history and African American experience.
The sheer abundance of works by famed and foundational African American artists, writers, and thinkers reveals the deep impact of these Americans. In addition to those mentioned above, there is art by Margaret Burroughs, Beauford Delaney, Aaron Douglas (a woodcut tetralogy Emperor Jones), Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence (more below), photographer James Van Der Zee, and Hale Woodruff, including his colorful Parisian Cubism (1927) and petite portrait Georgia Youth (1934). There are also artifacts from Langston Hughes (his typed and signed poem “Dinner Guest: Me”), Martin Luther King Jr. (a 1957 typed and signed letter to a literary agent), and Malcolm X (a 1963 typed and signed letter to writer Alex Haley).
But curatorial design that seamlessly blends art, artifact, and historical relevance is the main star of this exhibition that exists spatially in three distinct areas. In the first, an abundance of historical objects trace African American lineage. Included are the earliest known Black marriage and baptismal records from land that is present-day United States, from 1598 and 1595 respectively. There are also, of course, abundant artifacts about slavery that communicate the weight of that racist enterprise on Black and American life: slave shackles; a letter from a young enslaved girl being sold away from her family; a printed Treaty of Utrecht (1714), which gave the English a 30-year monopoly on the slave trade; a horrific 1798 printed proclamation “Any Person May Kill and Destroy Said Slaves” which followed the Fugitive Slave Act passage under President Washington; ledgers of slave insurance; a printed version of the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black people could never be U.S citizens; and confederate currency.
Amidst this: Black resistance and resilience. Objects include a biography of Ignacio Sancho, who was born on a slave ship and lived in England, 19th century carte de visites (postcards) of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and an 1872 lithograph of (the first) Black U.S. Congressmen — we learn in wall didactics that 13 of the 22 Black statesmen from the 19th century were formerly enslaved. Art, including works by 19th century artists Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert S. Duncanson, and Henry O. Tanner, and poetry by Phillis Wheatley, as well as a few 21st century works grace this “historical” wing: Butler’s The Boss (named above), and Tina Allen’s 2003 bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass.
The second section sits within a narrow hallway connecting the two larger rooms. Here works from TAM’s collection — sketches from Jacob Lawrence’s “Builder Series” — line the wall. We see three iterations of Lawrence’s Two Builders Playing Chess from black and white sketch, to sketch with aquatints of red, yellow, blue, and black, to a more realized work where two figures sit playing that game amidst color blocks of chess pieces and building tools.
The third section finds the abundance of 20th century art — many named at this article’s opening — as well as Civil Rights artifacts including a “Don’t Buy at Woolworth” broadside from the Congress of Racial Equality (boycotting the department store with racist practices), a Black Panther newsprint centering protest over the sterilization of Black women, and Black Panther poster.
The curatorial design gave heft to these works and objects, as did the thoughtful, contextual wall didactics where I learned about the long history and artistic practice of African Americans globally as well as Black artists specific to our region including Jacob Lawrence’s history in Seattle and a work by Richard Hunt which debuted at Seattle’s World Fair in 1962.
As multifaceted and boundless, the exhibition is also grounded in family. Portraits of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and their son Khalil greet visitors at the entrance. Painted by Black Canadian artist Artis Lane, these portraits evoke calmness, color, and love: in theirs, Bernard and Shirley stand in an embrace while adorned in vibrant yellow and red clothing, and in his, Khalil stands relaxed in a sweatshirt. (After beginning to collect Black art in the 1980s, the Kinseys continued in the 1990s after their elementary-school aged son was tasked with a “family tree” project where, as descendants of slaves, the family could only trace their genealogy back so far. Instead, they collected art and artifacts of the Black American experience.)
I’m reminded of this idea when I see Ava Cosey’s 2011 oil painting Ancestor’s Torch, in which a Black woman sports a green dress and gold jewelry. On closer look, the figure’s gold bracelets are broken shackles and inscribed on her dress are almost countless names of Black inventions starting from the 17th century. Cosey’s painting highlights Black invention history through art. I think about how the inventive work of the Kinsey family does something similar. It is thick with art, archive, and history from the Black American experience in ways that feel necessary for all of us to learn from and engage with.
The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection runs at the Tacoma Art Museum (1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, WA) through Nov. 28. Related events include a live performance of African American composers from the Northwest Sinfonietta (Nov. 4 at 6 p.m.) and Virtual Community Conversation (Nov. 14 at 2 p.m.). More information at www.tacomaartmuseum.org.
Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud is an arts writer, curator, and assistant professor in Performing Arts & Arts Leadership at Seattle University. She lives on the border of Westwood, South Delridge, and White Center in (south) West Seattle.
📸 Featured Image: Entrance to “The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection” exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM). Photo by Steven Miller, courtesy of TAM.
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