Kinsey Collection at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture
August 2- October 26, 2014
by Garry Reece
Street Scene, Tangier, 1913
The acknowledgement from the security system greeted me as I walked into HMAAC. Yet the first introductions of this exhibition came from the tintypes lining the walls in the gift shop. This was about business. Practiced and measure exercises in emancipation on display. Here were new citizens of the republic, proud of their tenuous stations, aware from whence they had come and ever prayerful for something better. Very obvious they had much to prove, aware of the crucibles that were to follow. Not a smile found in the whole lot. Not one.
The Kinsey Collection on view at HMAAC, we are told, “is a place where art and history intersect.” Honestly folks, more like a collision. Let’s face it, when you make an effort to connect scholarship to tangible artifacts that question somebody else’s view of what has been and quite possibly what will be, you are going to run into problems. Neither paternalism nor top logs give up their privileged vistas without a fight. With the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill as a launching point, the Kinsey Collection’s primary focus centers on the psychological impact and educational opportunities that an interdisciplinary presentation of artifacts, artwork, documents and memorabilia can have on a community.
Goree Island Rock, Gift of Ed Dwight to Bernard and Shirley Kinsey
There is a surreal looking slate gray colored rock dotted with star like markings from Gorée Island, a small islet off the coat of Senegal. A minor seaport, it became famous for La Maison des Esclaves (The Slave House) constructed by French creoles in 1786. The former slave house still stands, transformed now into a museum. Rather ironic, the old women’s prison in Huntsville was named Gorée (I’m going to leave that alone). There are baptism and wedding facsimiles dating from the late 1590’s that speak of the African’s presence in the New World early on. And if there are gaps in your embrace of how immersed the entire country was in slavery, a census from New York state 1801, announces the indictment in solicitous and yet bottom line terms. Remember that of the slaves counted, only 60% of their actual being was acknowledged, the other 40% was stockpiled, God knows where. Imagine this as a fun exercise to teach the kiddos about fractions and the 3/5 Compromise.
There is a mundane copy of the Dred Scott Decision. As you might remember, the concurring opinion handed down by the bench (there were two dissenting opinions) concluded that because Scott was a slave and not a citizen, he had no right to sue for his freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney conveyed the sentiment that the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made of it.” So you see Oprah is wrong, terribly wrong, for she has repeatedly dubbed Trayvon as “our Emmitt Till”. He was simply the latest organic rendering of Dred.
This brings us ultimately to a slave insurance quote manifesto. I dare say its 15 minute perusal could save you more than 15% on the alteration of your perspective. Equally germane are confederate and border state currencies from the 1860’s that I registered and framed against the currency series of Roshini Kempadoo, both tokens of exploitation used to question the exchange rate the black bearers of this notes can expect.
On a lighter note, one can see a bill of freight of the Enterprise Railroad Company 1889, the only black owned railroad line in U.S. history. Although at the time of this document, it had passed to white ownership.
There is also a photograph of the Annual Convention of the NAACP 1938, almost thirty years after its founding. There is Walter F. White, looking very much like his namesake, (capable of ‘passing’ at the drop of a dime) legs crossed and lounging, cool as a fan. Also recognizable with a full head of hair is a young Roy Wilkins long before Gil Scott Heron had him strolling through Watts in a red, black and green liberation jumpsuit. Of greater interest to me, is the juxtaposition of the two legal eagles, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. The former, the first legal counsel hired by the NAACP, dean of the law school at Howard University, the architect of the dismantling of segregation and the latter, his Joshua, star pupil and eventual lead counsel after Houston’s departure.
The Boss, Bisa Butler, 2006
Of equal importance is a letter from one Malcolm X, formally known as Malcolm Little, soon to be transformed in El Hajj Malik Shabazz. It is addressed to a writer from Playboy magazine named Alex Haley. This epistle, dated December 3, 1963, spoke of the former’s availability in the coming days. It seems that two days prior, Mr. X, had issued egregious and untenable comments concerning President Kennedy’s recent assassination. Those comments subsequently freed him up from previously scheduled speaking engagements. The two, it seems, were collaborating on an autobiography.
So, you venture upstairs to view the art collection; and low and behold who do you run into on the first landing? Why our very own Damballah Le Flambeau, the Magnificent Bert Long and his Black American flag, that’s who. A charcoal drawing of ‘Old Glory’ refitted with a sooty, plowed up field, frayed edges and the canton sporting a bouquet of cotton pods instead of the 50 stars of the union. This critique of “the fabric of our lives” is like its creator, unflinching, pithy and onerous. Coming up the stairs one is greeted by a poster of Paul Robeson with thick rouged lips publicizing the film, The Song of Freedom, (1936). The movie, about a black Englishman in search of his roots, highlighted his growing interest in pan-africanism, communism and set the tone for his vocal repertoire, which highlighted the songs of working class people the world over.
This collection has depth and range, a very even blend of older masters and contemporary heavy weights, although the pieces selected for the Houston leg of the tour, lean more toward the figurative than any other genre. But let’s be honest. For most of GlassTire’s readership, even though this is a who’s who of early to late 20th century artists, only the leading lights register, and usually in very nominal and sporadic terms. Langston’s racial mountain still looms large.
Hughie Lee-Smith’s, Untitled, (1951) possesses the tone of a brass band dirge at the point of abeyance before the ‘body is cut loose’, and the exuberance of the second line propels its participants back toward life. His vocabulary is allegorical and labored, with all the tension of a medieval morality play. Beauford Delaney’s, Paris, (1963), is a shimmering and lucent oil on woven paper ode to the city that allowed him and many other black artists to experience artistic freedom for the first time. Artists such as Sargent Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Merton Overton, all represented in this collection, are perennially underserved in part because they are so diverse and eclectic in their output. In even larger part because there are only so many slots for the discussion of African-American artists within the larger canon of American art. Robert Blackburn is often slighted for these same reasons.
His Untitled, (1960) is a sumi-ink lithograph that pushes form and mark to a swelling of harmonic tension, while truncating the pictorial plane. Co-founder, with Will Barnett and Thomas Laidman, of the internationally acclaimed Printmaking Workshop (PMW) in New York City, he worked with such notables as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Helen Frankenthaler, Jacob Lawrence, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy DeCarava and Jasper Johns. A cutting edge figure in fine art lithography, Blackburn often challenged the notions of what a graphic work should and could become in relation to abstraction and color. Often he worked with a composition for years, distilling it to its most essential elements. Abstraction, he felt, can best be understood by following the dramatic and subtle changes from proof to proof.
This is one of the hidden charms of this collection. Quiet illuminations. Hushed discoveries. Like any great anthology, it propels you into a further investigation of those artists or articles that you were introduced to but need addition time and contemplation to fully discover. The scale of HMAAC created a salon-like atmosphere that enhanced the whole experience.
Paul Robeson in the Song of Freedom, 1936
The raison d’etre of this collection is the question that all archives seek to resolve. It is not a question that deals or seeks to elicit ‘where we have been’. Not really. Rather it is as Derrida has stated, “It is a question of the future, in fact the question of the future itself”. For what this collection seeks to question is a response to those times that produced these articles and artworks. My response. Your response. America’s response. That response will take place over time. Yet in the evolution of that response, one hopes to find a promise and a responsibility for tomorrow. It is in the gesture, fostered and extended by the Kinseys with the offering of their collection, that we can attempt to re-condition ourselves from the historical, institutional and social that has been offered up as natural, when in fact they are far from that.
Could you all excuse me….there is someone is ah, yeah…….at the FRONT DOOR!
Garry Reece is a writer, artist, and culture critic who lives and works in Houston, Texas
Images courtesy of Kinsey collection