A&E Pick of the Week
Two days before The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection exhibit opened at Tacoma Art Museum, Shirley Kinsey, a philanthropist and collector, gave the bronze bust of Frederick Douglass a pat on the shoulder like the famed abolitionist was an old friend. Before the Los Angeles-based Kinsey family turned their private art and history collection into a world-traveling exhibition, the sculpture of Douglass used to sit at their dining room table.
“We’d say we were having dinner with Frederick Douglass,” Shirley Kinsey said with a laugh.
The Kinsey Collection features African American art and historical artifacts from 1595 to the present collected by the Kinsey family and shared with the goal of “filling in the blanks” where Black American experiences are left out of American history.
First meeting each other as students at a civil rights protest in 1963 where Shirley Kinsey was arrested, the couple have been married for 50 years and have been exhibiting their private collection of Black art and historical artifacts for 15 years.
When Shirley and Bernard Kinsey’s son, Khalil, was assigned a project about family history in his fourth grade class and came home with questions, the Kinsey family began their quest to find and acquire hidden and unknown treasures of African American history.
Years later they realized their growing collection could help other families, Black and white, learn more about the under-acknowledged contributions of Black Americans in the U.S.
“Please become historians of your own families,” urged Shirley Kinsey.
Now the collection is in its 15th year as a public exhibition and Khalil Kinsey, 44 years old, is chief curator for the exhibit that he knows like the inside of his own home, because throughout his childhood, it was his home.
“It’s an enormous feat for Black people to overcome what is put on us from all angles,” said Khalil Kinsey. “Coming from a Black family with privilege and a good foundation, I still had to combat what I thought Blackness was supposed to be. Having this information at home is what helped. I’m extremely fortunate because I had this.”
On a wall along the hallway that guides viewers from the part of the collection focused on Black history toward the art section are several black-and-white portraits of Black people in fancy dress. Above the portraits is a slogan the Kinseys refer to like it’s an old adage: “The Myth of Absence.”
Bernard Kinsey, an entrepreneur, says the goal of the public exhibition is to make the invisible visible. And through his work collecting the artifacts for the exhibit, he has found plenty of examples of what he calls Black folk being “invisibly present.” He spouts examples from memory, like the story of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a Black woman who integrated the streetcar system in New York in 1854, 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery.
“There are the stories that made America and there are the stories that America made up,” said Bernard Kinsey. “Everything we learned in school was made up, because [Black Americans] weren’t in it … We’re here, we’re just not part of the narrative and we should be.”
While many museum and gallery collections with a focus on Black American history trend toward the suffering and pain of slavery, Jim Crow, the violence that met civil rights activists — a focus that is important and valuable — the Kinsey Collection’s focus is on Black achievement and celebration.
“It’s not about struggle,” said Bernard Kinsey. “It’s about changing the narrative about Black accomplishment and achievement in U.S. history.”
Second in size only to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of African American art and history, the Kinsey collection has around 700 pieces total (150 are on display at TAM). The collection includes artworks from artists like Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage and primary-source artifacts from a record of one of the earliest known Black baptisms in 1595 to letters from the Harlem Renaissance and memorabilia from the 1963 March on Washington.
There are letters from author Zora Neale Hurston, a painting from Seattle-favorite artist Jacob Lawrence’s “The Builders” collection, even a letter from Lawrence to Shirley Kinsey’s uncle written while Lawrence was living here in Seattle.
The exhibit follows all of that history up to the present day by including a gallery of Black American movers and shakers in the local Tacoma community — people like Harold Moss, the first Black member of the Tacoma City Council, and Kenzie Jones, a local teen activist who has been involved in issues like education reform and Black Lives Matter.
The piece that struck me most powerfully was a bronze bust by American sculptor May Howard Jackson (1877-1931) titled “Portrait Bust of an African.”
To me it embodies what this exhibit represents. I’ve seen my share of racist depictions of Black and African people with terrifying, stereotyped and/or humiliating features. I’ve seen far too many depictions of Black and African people in poses and positions of horror, fear, suffering.
With this bust, Jackson shows off the gentleness, the uniqueness, the strength of this unnamed person. It’s done with a respect and love that I’ve rarely seen in historical sculptures of Black people. In fact, in trying to describe to another viewer why it captured my attention, I described it as “Grecian” in how it made the subject look so graceful and powerful at once. With so few examples in my experience of art of Black and African subjects being portrayed with grace and power, I could only compare it to the works of Greek sculpture I’d seen admired in museums and art galleries.
I learned later that Jackson herself was little honored as an artist in her time, but here in the Kinsey collection, she takes up space as an artistic heroine, as someone who saw the beauty, grace and power of Blackness when most others did not.