Custodians of Our Own History: ‘The Kinsey Collection’ at Museum of the African Diaspora

Custodians of Our Own History: 'The Kinsey Collection' at Museum of the African Diaspora-Emancipation Proclamation, 1862. Courtesy of the Kinsey Collection.

The 2013 spring auction season will soon be underway, and during that time, there may be breathless reporting of what sales brought in the most cash for major houses like Sotheby’s and Christies in the United States, Europe, and Asia. For most people, accounts of multi-million dollar sales are what constitute their knowledge of the art market and the transactions that take place behind closed doors in hushed tones. If you visit San Francisco’s own Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), you will see a collection of art and historical documents drawn from the history of African Americans and their enslaved predecessors that reflects both the collector’s tastes and sense of stewardship.

The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect, the cumbersomely titled exhibition currently on view, represents the life’s work thus far of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. Combining fine art and ephemera amassed over thirty-five years, the collection was founded with Inuit and Native American art and grew with the addition of African American objects. Bernard Kinsey describes the direction and deep dimensionality of the collection as products of the couple’s desire to understand the minute and largely unknown contours of the African American experience — the smells, tastes, daily injustices, and personal victories. A desire to balance the horrors of institutional slavery with the resilience of those who lived through it is apparent within the design and presentation of the exhibition itself, but is nowhere better heard than in the boisterous, well-informed descriptions written by the collectors themselves.

The collection is neatly organized by category in the museum’s third floor gallery, starting with the importation of Africans to European colonies throughout the west. These otherwise mundane financial accounts document some of the earliest shipments of human cargo, and the experience of reading them is breathtaking. A second object in the same vitrine serves as a resilient counterpoint to the notes of injustice. The book Ioannis Leonis Africani Africae (1632) is the earliest geographical account of North Africa by someone born and raised on the continent. I was not familiar with the book’s author, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, a Moorish diplomat who was captured and briefly imprisoned in Rome before being presented to and baptized by Pope Leo X. Writing under the name Leo Africanus, his words describe the austere beauty of a region on the verge of colonization.


Photographer unknown, Well to Do Black Couple, c. 1890, Hand-colored tin type. Courtesy of the Kinsey Collection.

The presentation moves deftly through early masterpieces of African American painters including Robert S. Duncanson, Charles Ethan Porter, and Edward Bannister, emphasizing that artistic accomplishment took place despite the presence and perils of slavery. At roughly the midpoint of the exhibition, we are presented with documents that reinforce the chilling terror of life under the lash for the millions of souls who weathered it. If you’re like me, this section of the show includes facts about the nation’s history that are often glossed over in middle school history classes.

Case in point: the Emancipation Proclamation, 150 years old in 2013. Did you know that the document was a martial order and was therefore given first to Union military leaders in the ten rebel states? I didn’t, and it was thrilling to find that a gap in my knowledge was filled. That satisfying “wow” moment was quickly tempered while reading an account of a gruesome murder. The report, written by a Union soldier in a letter to his father, describes the scene of an enslaved family that was slaughtered by unknown assailants. The same vitrine that holds the Emancipation Proclamation and the soldier’s grim letter also houses a hand-colored tin type portrait of a wealthy black couple, a testament to the hard-fought battle for identity that unfolded during Reconstruction. In this well-executed organizational scheme, the psychological heights and depths of a nation in painful and necessary transition are displayed.


Romare Bearden, Falling Star, 1979, Lithograph. Courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The exhibition draws to an end with a passage through the twentieth century, highlighting the struggle for civil rights in documents, including a 1963 letter written by Malcolm X to his editor Alex Haley emphasizing an urgent desire to finish his autobiography, and a signed copy of the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Paired with these important pieces of ephemera are paintings, works on paper, photographs, and sculptures that comprise a small portion of the Kinsey’s fine art collection.

When asked how she approaches the acquisition of new pieces, Shirley Kinsey — who is responsible for the visual art components — states that she values the relationships cultivated with artists, and that she eschews advice from curators, gallerists, and others in favor of her own instinct and sense of connection to the object. Those instincts are well honed, as pieces by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles Alston, Richard Mayhew, and Bisa Butler confirm.


Michael L. Dunson, Jr., The Cultivators, 2000. Oil on canvas.

As hinted at by MoAD Executive Director Grace Stanislaus in her opening remarks, the Kinsey Collection is one in a series of exhibitions dedicated to showcasing a cache of prominent African American collectors. If the current exhibition is any indication, the series shows great promise for bringing rarely-seen gems to public view and, one hopes, steers away from the lackluster exhibitions the museum has presented as of late. Most recently it was Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction!, which suffered from both a clumsy title and a selection of lesser paintings by otherwise talented Bay Area artists. The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect constitutes a unique museum experience, offering a glimpse of the challenges and triumphs of African American life through historical documentation and dazzling visual art.

The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect is on view through May 19, 2013 at Museum of the African Diaspora. For more information, visit moadsf.org.

Author

Roula Seikaly

Roula Seikaly is a curator and writer based in San Francisco.

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