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Art Review: The Kinsey Collection

Traveling exhibit highlights African-American history and art

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Samuel L. Dunson Jr.’s “The Cultivators”


The Kinsey Collection

Through March 2 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

“The Cultivators,” a painting by Samuel L. Dunson Jr., on display as part of The Kinsey Collection at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, portrays three African-Americans in a fantastical field of books. A woman wipes the dirt off a volume which seems to have just been harvested from the soil while a young man behind her is committed to reading a plucked copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. The male figure in the foreground clutches a bag brimming with books with his large, powerful hands, gazing up toward the sun, which illuminates his stern expression. While his pant legs are rolled up and his feet planted firmly in the soil, the rest of his dress—a button-down shirt, paisley tie, round glasses, and hat—suggest that this work is not menial labor, but that the cultivation of knowledge is the communal and rewarding work of all persons.

“The Cultivators” is located at the start of the traveling Kinsey exhibition, alongside portraits of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and their son, Khalil, and it serves to illustrate the family’s motto, writ large on a wall as part of the exhibition’s description: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, after retiring from corporate America in 1991, the elder Kinseys began to focus their lives on philanthropy, collecting, and travel. Bernard claims that the origin of the family’s spirit for collecting was brought out by their son. As the story goes, when Kahlil was assigned to do a report on his family history, they failed to come up with any information beyond the past three generations of Kinseys. This sparked a curiosity about their own genealogy and a commitment to sharing the lesser-known aspects of African-American history on a larger scale.

The Kinseys passion for collecting extends to both history and art. Bernard Kinsey’s focus on history dominates the first half of the exhibit, which is densely packed with photographs and documents that tell of the struggle of African-Americans from their earliest days in this country.

Starting with the roots of African diaspora in America—the transatlantic slave trade—the exhibit features works which highlight both the achievements and hardships of Africans brought to England and America. A rare original book of poems by the first published African-American female poet, Phillis Wheatley, is contrasted with other documents, like a large, imposing ledger listing slaves tied to an estate by ownership, completely stripping each person of his or her identity and transforming them into mere commodities.

Even the role of slave owners is portrayed in a varied light. A letter to a young slave girl expresses the owner’s sadness at having to sell her and her embarrassment at the justification: to pay for her horses and stable. Another letter shows that a slave owner, when forced to sell one slave, sells the rest of his family at a loss, just to keep them together. These intimate glimpses into the psyche of slave owners help build a clearer image of the disastrous world that produced these documents.

With equal complexity, a variety of objects attempt to capture what it meant to be African-American during the Civil War. An early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation stands near one of the first advertisements to encourage African-American enlistment in the Union Army, while a solider’s letter nearby recounts the vicious sentiments of some slave owners who would rather see what they viewed as their property destroyed than allow them to live a fully human life.

Original documents of Jim Crow-era legislation, such as the separate but equal doctrine, show the continuing hardship of those who were forced to fight for basic rights. The poignant evidence of such crippling legalities is shown with an iconic drinking-fountain sign which literally points to the haunting reality of the unfair division of access between African-Americans and the rest of society. Above all the documents hangs a protest sign, pleading in bold, black typeface on a stark white background, “HONOR KING: END RACISM.”

If Bernard Kinsey’s collecting focused on history, Shirley’s is dedicated to the artistic endeavors of African-Americans, with works ranging from Hudson River School landscapes from the late 19th century through more current artistic styles such as abstract expressionism. As one moves into the second half of the exhibition, the space opens up with larger canvases and brighter colors. Shirley’s focus on living African-American artists acts as a symbolic and visual celebration of those artists whose works triumph over—yet remain attached to—the heavy history displayed in the first half of the collection. With works by Jacob Lawrence, the first African-American elected as a member to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Sam Gilliam, acknowledged as the most notable African-American Color Field painter, the exhibition represents the presence of African-Americans in art movements in America that are still predominately told exclusively through their non-black counterparts.

Another little-known pioneer, Artis Lane, painted the portraits of the Kinsey family that watch over their collection with a well-deserved look of accomplishment and devotion to their work. Those portraits, too, could be called “The Cultivators.”

To see a gallery of images from the Kinsey collection, visit citypaper.com/kinsey

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