Friday, March 13, 2009

Interview with artist Ellington Robinson

by Peter Gordon

In his second solo exhibition since earning a Masters Degree in Fine Art in 2008, Washington D.C. artist Ellington Robinson puts passion and dedication on display. Cultural awareness and a strong sense of history emanate from numerous pieces that creatively walk the line between painting and sculpture. "The Blackprint", on display until Saturday, March 21 at the Harmony Hall Regional Center, in Fort Washington, Maryland, gives viewers much to ponder in terms of object making and our society. Robinson also has an upcoming exhibit at the District of Columbia Arts Center in Washington D.C., opening Friday, March 27 from 7-9 pm.

CONTEMPORARY ART REVIEW Your work makes strong references to music and boxing. How do these subjects, or others, inform your work?

ELLINGTON ROBINSON Jazz, Soul, and Rap (Hip-Hop) have been the soundtrack to a wealthy life filled with love, violence, a lot of death, people and travels. Music played in our household nonstop; and musicians used to come by like Nina Simone, Johnny Hartman and others. Records, tapes and reel to reels were the media and still are, in addition to current technology. I also pay homage to all those musicians who are overlooked as leaders. There were many days when their songs got me through tough times. Standing at the podium and saying a speech should not be the only image of guidance. Life is so much more complicated than the sign of that conventional image.

I’m from D.C., so we grew up on Sugar Ray Leonard and slap boxing with friends. Later as teens, it was “going to the body” which is boxing with only body shots and even street fights. In addition, Ali was and is an instrumental force in my life. He came by the house when we lived in St. Croix and as a child I was enamored. In `98, my sister died of cancer at 36; and to grieve I would pick up boxing and train, spar; and I fought in a tournament in Atlanta. Moving back to D.C., I met two friends of mine who are boxers named Rob and Tony and they took my training to another level. At this point it was for discipline and health. I also was working out in St. Thomas in the gym belonging to former middle weight champ, Julian “The Hawk” Jackson. There is a lot to learn about life in boxing, and it is really a part of my makeup as a human being. Now, all my aggression comes out in the studio. Therefore, elements of the sport find their way into the work.

CAR: You’ve been influenced by profound musicians, athletes and places. Additionally, which fine artists and/or artistic movements have affected your work?

ER: The Harlem, Italian and French Renaissance, Be Bop, Soul, Hip Hop, New York School, Fauves, Dada, the Impressionists, Civil Rights, the Dogan and the Dan, cultures and sculptures. All of those factors are an influence on my work.

CAR: Much of your work presents a play of obvious versus subtle, as dense painted layers juxtapose with protruding three-dimensional objects. What does this visual tension mean to you? What additional meaning do the sculptural elements bring to your work?

ER: Life has a physical presence; and growing up in a Hip Hop generation in the inner city, you are informed by material objects. The turntables, congas, clothing, chains, books, cars, records, trains, cement, bricks, sneakers, basketballs, signage, guns, people, clippers, barbershops, African sculpture, etc. The paint is the medium of expression; it is the ink of a writer, the horse of a cowboy, the fist of the boxer. I try to combine the physicality of location and mix it with paint. I used to paint images of the objects and now I just use the objects and turn them into my own forms of communication.

Some of the forms are literal, but they’re not. Lao Tzu inspired, I guess. For instance, The “Stone that the Builder Refused” is obviously a portrait, but the geometric eyes are influenced by the Hip Hop turntables, constructed with 45’s and appropriated from the Dan and Dogon mask. The Dogon culture is very community oriented, and rituals are practiced to propel young males into men. These very rituals are what is missing from our upbringing and why we have such a hard time being responsible for our children and lives. There is nothing literal in the meaning of any of my works; the products of music are the imaginative soundtrack, and the material of the forms. The train tracks as a motif have many symbolic references. They are the tracks of an album; they represent the Underground Railroad. They play on hip hop graffiti culture which used trains as canvases, and they reference the sound of the subways' wheels rolling along the tracks which have an effect on the New York sound of jazz. My friend from Germany, said they reminded him of the Holocaust and how trains were used to transport people.

As for the visual tension, it is a byproduct of the fusion; this is where the process becomes organic in its metamorphosis. The finitude does not exist, because I can honestly say with Obama being president, this work has another dimension than intended. My heroes in the eighties were the rappers like Kool G Rap, Slick Rick, Kane and Rakim among many others. This is not excluding the Civil Rights leaders and Pan Africanist. As a matter of fact, one of my first drawings was a narrative image of King giving “I Had a Dream” that was done when I was eight on the couch, listening to his speeches. We had to listen to his speeches every year for his birthday. As children we were well aware of the fact that King, Malcolm and others were assassinated. Our household instilled history into us, and nothing was sugar coated except for Christmas. When I started hearing the music of my generation, it went “through my body”, as Miles would say. Grand Master Flash, Run DMC, Fat Boys, Whoodini and all those groups were loved. Later, the hard groups like Boogie Down Productions came along and their DJ, Scott La Rock was killed. This is really when the violence started to permeate the music to another magnitude, even though it was always there. By the time Junior High came along, and I was living back in D.C., I started to know actual people my age who were getting killed. Along with the death of Scott La Rock, those inner city emotions started to affect my conscious. I would have to deal with this violence through high school and even Morehouse College, until now. The name of this institution is dropped because it is the only all Black male college in the world, and some of these educated men were victims of heinous crimes. The world’s poisons do not discriminate. This includes people like Ennis Cosby, whom I knew personally, and our music heroes in school like Big and Pac. My work, through its grit and tension, evokes the same emotions that bring about the humility and humbleness of dealing with these life experiences.

CAR: A strong sense of history permeates several aspects of your work. Regarding President Obama, how has his rise changed your work’s aims? Will his presidency affect your intentions? Additionally, how do you hope he engages and affects the African American community?

Obama is Twenty first century thinking. Many of my mentors have been Civil Rights activists and Pan Africanist, so they have experienced racism at its full capacity. I heard first hand stories of lynchings and the experience of men in their neighborhoods disappearing. They have been told that they cannot be served in this and that store and were not welcome in movie theaters and certain schools. We are speaking of a people being negated that are responsible for some of the best of American culture. They brought blues and jazz to the canon. The writings of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Alain Locke, and Sterling Brown were literary voices. Du Boise, Garvey, and Washington set forth ideologies for the people. Artists such as Romeare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and art groups like AfriCobra and Spiral were forces in the arts. With all this contribution of talent and beauty, we saw what America did to us and our heroes. Therefore, I empathize with the past generations; and America should too.

When I see Obama, I see one who has not only this history of America on his shoulders, but the lineage of the forefathers (Lincoln, Adams, Washington) who built this country, the Native Americans, and slaves who lives were sacrificed for the foundation. He understands the plight of other people all over the world who have suffered from the West’s affinity of capitalism and imperialism.

There is a belief that being White means you are automatically educated and rich. This is absolutely foolish thinking and is as unjust as thinking all Blacks and Latinos are uneducated and poor. It is evident that Whites have suffered too from imperialists’ power. The only common denominator is that human beings are the same all over; we all have the same feelings at the end of day. So if a racial quagmire like Jena 6 or a Sean Bell incident happens again, God forbid, all Americans are victims.

The true fight is not with race; it is against the capitalist that exploit the masses. This is the aim in the work. When my friends were brutally murdered in D.C., the culprits of the crime are not the root of the issue; the issues are who brought the drugs in the community and why did we allow our friends and children to get involved in that game. Why did they not choose education as the way out, and why are so many kids making the same foolish decisions? This is a worldwide phenomenon; capitalism needs to be redeveloped into a system that focuses on the spiritual, mental and physical health of the people. My God, we have a lot of work to do.

CAR: Why is making art important to you? Do you have any suggestions to your audience in regards to viewing your work?

ER: Making art is a gift and a curse, but if I don’t do it I think I would die. There are a lot of misunderstandings and questions that need solutions and answers. Art allows me to find these remedies, but the irony is that creating initiates more misunderstandings and questions. The well runs deep and is getting deeper.

I have done my job in living through these experiences and conveying them in the creative process; whatever the audience takes away, that is on them. Although it pleases me to know that someone felt my expression, there are far more intense struggles among the inner city youths here in America, the Favelas in Brazil, and the child soldiers in Africa’s civil wars and beyond. I just hope to trigger some thoughts outside of my initial intentions.

BIO: Ellington Robinson earned his M.F.A. in painting and mixed media at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he is currently serving the David C. Driskell Award of Excellence’ teaching fellowship, as a Lecturer of Drawing. He was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in a large family with six siblings and dozens of cousins and close relatives. The Robinson household was a respite for civil rights activists, jazz and soul enthusiasts, politicians, artists, writers, academics and professionals, including Max Robinson, Muhammad Ali, CLR James, Stokley Carmichael, Toni Morrison, and Nina Simone. In 1980, Ellington moved to St. Croix, Virgin Islands, where the family lived on a former sugar plantation with a sugar mill, historic ruins, and antique tools once used by slaves. Wild horses and goats roamed the land from time to time and the family worked several of the large gardens, which produced a variety of fruits and vegetables including ginnup, sugar apple, pomegranate, and papaya. Life on this plantation was for Ellington a daily reminder of our past. Ellington moved with his family from St. Croix to St. Thomas in 1985, where he attended both Lutheran and Anglican elementary schools. He returned to Washington during the rough times of the late 1980’s crack epidemic and attended public school. In this period of his life, the artist delved deeper into the Hip Hop culture, which has had a profound impact on his art. After graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School, he went on to Morehouse, where he received a B.A. in English. He has traveled extensively; and his explorations, mixed with the vicissitudes of his experiences growing up, are the amalgam that makes up his artwork. His work is in private and public collections, including The David C. Driskell Center and the Jean and Robert Steele Collection.

To see more images of Ellington's work, visit his website,, or email him at Thank you for reading; and thank you, Ellington, for your participation.