Kinsey Collection Fills the Whites Where Black Americans Are Excluded in U.S. History

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A&E pick of the week

Two days before the opening of the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum, Shirley Kinsey, philanthropist and collector, patted the bronze bust of Frederick Douglass on the shoulder as the famous abolitionist was a old friend. Before the Los Angeles-based Kinsey family turned their private art and history collection into a global exhibit, Douglass’s sculpture sat 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 works of art and historical African-American artifacts from 1595 to the present, collected by the Kinsey family and shared for the purpose of “filling in the blanks” where the experiences of black Americans are excluded from the American history.

First meeting as students at a civil rights protest in 1963 where Shirley Kinsey was arrested, the couple have been married for 50 years and display their private collection of dark art and historical artifacts for 15 years.

The story:

When Shirley and Bernard Kinsey’s son Khalil was given a family history project in his fourth grade class and returned home with questions, the Kinsey family began their quest to find and acquire hidden treasures. and unknown to African-American history.

Years later, they realized that their growing collection could help other families, black and white, learn more about the underrated contributions of black Americans to the United States.

“Please become historians of your own families,” urged Shirley Kinsey.

Today the collection is in its 15th year of public exhibition and Khalil Kinsey, 44, is the chief curator of the exhibition which he knows as the interior of his own home, as throughout his childhood was his home.

“It is a huge achievement for black people to overcome what is imposed on us from all angles,” said Khalil Kinsey. “Coming from a black family with privileges and a good foundation, I still had to fight what I thought the dark was meant to be. Having this information at home is what helped. I am extremely lucky because I had this.

Los Angeles-based collectors Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, and their son, Chief Curator Khalil Kinsey, unveiled the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection on July 29 at the Tacoma Art Museum.  On view until November 28, the Tacoma exhibit features 150 from the Kinseys' 700-piece collection.  The collection includes works by artists such as Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage, letters from author Zora Neale Hurston, a painting from “The Builders” collection by Jacob Lawrence and more.  (Sylvia Jarrus / The Seattle Times)


On a wall along the corridor that guides viewers from the black history part of the collection to the arts section are several black and white portraits of blacks in disguise. Above the portraits is a slogan which the Kinseys refer to as an old adage: “The Myth of Absence.”

Bernard Kinsey, an entrepreneur, says the purpose of the public exhibition is to make the invisible visible. And through his work collecting artifacts for the exhibit, he has found numerous examples of what he calls black people “invisibly present”. He cites examples from memory, such as the story of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black woman who entered 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 invented, because [Black Americans] Weren’t there… We’re here, we’re just not part of the story and we should be.

The “Myth of Absence” portraits line the hallways of the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection at the Tacoma Art Museum.  Collector Bernard Kinsey says the exhibition's goal is to make the invisible visible, with examples of what he calls blacks being “invisibly present” throughout American history.  (Sylvia Jarrus / The Seattle Times)


The strong points:

While many museum and gallery collections focusing on black American history tend toward the suffering and pain of slavery, Jim Crow, the violence that has encountered civil rights activists – a goal that is important and valuable – the focus of the Kinsey Collection is on black and party success.

“It’s not about wrestling,” said Bernard Kinsey. “This is about changing the narrative about the achievements and achievements of black people in the history of the United States.”

Second in size to the Smithsonian Institution’s African-American Art and History Collection, the Kinsey Collection has approximately 700 pieces in total (150 are on display at TAM). The collection includes works by artists like Romare Bearden and Augusta Savage and primary source artefacts from a recording of one of the earliest known black baptisms in 1595 to Renaissance letters from Harlem and memorabilia from the march from 1963 on Washington.

There are letters from author Zora Neale Hurston, a painting from the “The Builders” collection by Seattle favorite artist Jacob Lawrence, 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 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 Tacoma City Council, and Kenzie Jones, a local teenage activist who has been involved in issues like educational reform and Black Lives Matter.

The piece that struck me the most is a bronze bust of the American sculptor May Howard Jackson (1877-1931) entitled “Portrait Bust of an African”.

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For me, he embodies what this exhibition represents. I have seen my share of racist representations of blacks and Africans with terrifying, stereotypical and / or humiliating features. I have seen far too many depictions of blacks and Africans in poses and positions of horror, fear, pain.

With this bust, Jackson shows the sweetness, the uniqueness, the strength of this nameless person. It is done with a respect and a love that I have rarely seen in historical black sculptures. In fact, when trying to describe to another viewer why it caught my attention, I described it as “Greek” in that it made the subject so graceful and powerful at the same time. With so few examples in my art experience of black and African subjects depicted with grace and power, I could only compare it to the works of Greek sculpture that I had seen admired in museums and art galleries.

I later learned that Jackson herself was little honored as an artist in her day, 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 while most of the others have not.

Kinsey’s Collection of African American Art and History

Until November 28; 10 am-5pm Wednesday and Sunday, 10 am-8pm Thursday-Saturday; $ 18 adults, $ 15 seniors, free for military personnel and children 18 and under, free from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; reservations required for Kinsey Collection; Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org. COVID-19 Protocol: Face covers are mandatory for all visitors aged 5 and over, regardless of their vaccination status.



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