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The Kinsey Collection showcases obstacles and the people who transcended them

By Barbara Schreiber

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You might think that an exhibition including a litany of injustices would seethe with anger.

But the Kinsey Collection, on view at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture, is full of generosity and hope.

Philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have been touring their impressive collection of African-American art, documents, books and manuscripts throughout the United States since 2007.

Their goal is not to shame or induce guilt, but to tell a story of success in the face of long odds.

The exhibition, which sprawls throughout the Gantt, is filled with juxtapositions of oppression and achievement.

The show begins in the smallest gallery with “The Cultivators,” a painting by Samuel L. Dunson Jr. that reflects the family’s principles. Shirley and Bernard, along with son Khalil, who manages the collection and the family’s foundation, stand on a pathway studded with books. Their unassuming clothes establish a visual hierarchy in which knowledge is paramount.

Display cases house a jarring mixture of objects. They include “Ioannis Leonis Africani Africae,” written in 1632 and considered the first book on Africa by an author of African descent, an original Banneker Almanac and a first edition of poems by Phillis Wheatley. Interspersed among them are British slave trade documents and a leather-bound book labeled “Doc. No 225: Negroes &c. Captured from Indians in Florida, &c.”

The art here is traditional – landscapes, still lifes and travel exotica that express Western ideals and indicate that African-American artists still didn’t feel free to tell their own stories.

The second gallery’s mix of art and history addresses topics such as slavery and the Jim Crow era, as well as African-American war heroism, election to public office during Reconstruction, and the promise of the Civil Rights Movement.

Here you will find a 1798 North Carolina arrest proclamation granting permission under the Fugitive Slave Act to kill escaped slaves, a slave insurance schedule and a contract permitting a man to purchase the freedom of his own family.

A 1931 bronze plaque pointing to separate black and white drinking fountains, presented without comment in a simple frame, is a quiet, chilling display of the banality of evil.

Allan Rohan Crite’s 1934 drawing “Ping Pong” depicts a young woman who, even at play, projects a self-conscious dignity. This perhaps illustrates what W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book “The Souls of Black Folks,” identified as “double-consciousness ... [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

The final gallery is dedicated exclusively to art.

Although some wall texts recount the racism these artists suffered – and which drove many to Paris, Mexico and other places – the mood here is bright and alive.

This gallery acknowledges the importance of the Harlem Renaissance, which encouraged the development of a more personal black aesthetic, as well as wealthy white individuals, particularly William E. Harmon and Julius Rosenwald, whose foundations honored ground-breaking African-American artists with grants, fellowships and exhibitions.

On display is a copy of “The Negro in Art” by Alain Locke, who in 1907 became the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. This book, says Bernard Kinsey, “gave black folks permission to paint their experiences.”

This room is a passionate jumble; there are so many different genres and styles that it is almost too much to take in.

But there are numerous treasures, including a 1943 photograph of artist Charles White by Gordon Parks and Lois Mailou Jones’ 1947 luminous watercolor “Fisherman, Fishing Boats and Woman Sketching.”

The exhibition concludes with a dazzling array of works by some of the collection’s biggest names, among them Romare Bearden, Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, Beauford Delaney, Robert Blackburn, and Sam Gilliam.

This gallery brings the show full circle, attesting to the power that accrues from living a life on the mind.

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