Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection
Truth be told, I was initially not very interested when I was invited to visit an exhibition on African American art and history, but my lack of interest, in hindsight, surprised me. I suspect my fascination caught me off-guard because while Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city, there appears to be relatively few exhibitions of this kind for one to learn about African American art and culture.
This revelation also piqued my interest in learning more about why such a high profile exhibition would choose to host its international debut in Hong Kong. After some research, I learnt that “Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection” is a rare and insightful collection privately owned by Bernard and Shirley Kinsey. Their collection has over 120 items including poems, paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, personal letters as well as official documents spanning over 400 years of African American history. I also discovered that the Kinsey Collection exhibitions are designed to address large gaps in education in the area of African American History and Arts and highlight the significant accomplishments African Americans made in building the US as a nation. This collection plays an indispensable role in highlighting African American’s contribution to modern-day America by documenting in an emotionally-impactful way their endless struggle to break free from the shackles of slavery and achieve equal protection under the law.
When I arrived at the University Museum and Art Gallery on Bonham road where the Kinsey Collection is showcased, I was particularly attracted by the Collection’s books and letters which allow me to catch a glimpse of the life stories of a diverse group of African Americans. From slaves to poets to activists to artists, all seemed to offer up their skills to challenge an untenable status quo. One of the most remarkable exhibits, was a letter dated 1839 titled “Henry Butler Buys the Freedom of His Wife and Four Children for $100”. The title immediately captured my attention: it is unfathomable that the appalling system of slavery was still in place in the US just two centuries ago. How could a country that purports to be built on the notion that all men are created equal, which is decried to be “an unalienable right”, callously deny this right to so many? I was also shocked to discover that a healthy and childbearing slave could be sold at a market rate of $1,800 at that time, highlighting the horrific system of treating a human being as property to be bought and sold based on the colour of their skin. In the midst of the darkness of these stories, I was heartened to learn that Henry Butler was able to buy his family’s freedom from his slave owner. This letter is truly extraordinary because of Butler’s determination and the slave owner’s small, albeit compassionate, step away from an otherwise inhumane system. It serves as a reminder of our ability to be humane and compassionate, no matter how difficult it might seem at that time. It also illustrates, after all, that this simply is a matter of choice.
In addition to highlighting our capability to be selfless and caring in an unjust world, I think an important purpose behind the Kinsey Collection is to challenge us to put aside our own preconceived notions about people who are visibly different to us. History has again and again shown a base tendency of homogenous groups to attribute negative qualities to those who can be easily identified as different or the “other”. Sometimes it is easy to view those who do not conform to our standards to be uneducated, uncultured or dangerous. We tend to forget that those “others”, like us, are capable of achieving great things if given the opportunity.
In this regard, the Kinsey Collection has done an amazing job in showcasing and acknowledging the extraordinary achievements by African Americans throughout history. For instance, the collection features the story of Phillis Wheatley who left her home in Africa for North America at the age of seven and eventually became the first published African American female poet. Through her stunning achievements, Phillis contributed in her own unique way to the advancement of African Americans at a time when they were being unconscionably oppressed. Her story illustrates how anyone can flourish if given the opportunity to do so: success, just like the sun, can shine on anyone who is allowed and has the gumption to step towards its light. Similarly, there is the story of Ignatius Sancho who was born on a slave ship in 1729 and rose above all adversity to become the first African to vote in a British election. In addition to these remarkable accounts, there are a variety of other remarkable stories in the Kinsey Collection waiting to be discovered and reflected upon.
At the end of the exhibition, I cannot agree more with Kinsey’s statement which aptly encapsulates its essence – that deep down “we are more alike than we are dissimilar.” I truly believe that if we bear this principle in mind in all our interactions with others, whether they are from South East Asia, Africa or other parts of the world, our interactions will surely be one filled with mutual respect, joy and compassion. From that, we will stop viewing ourselves as separate individuals in an increasingly isolated world but rather, as part of the human race. I wholeheartedly recommend you to take the time to visit the Kinsey Collection.
Rising Above: The Kinsey African American Art & History
9 December 2016–26 February 2017
University Museum and Art Gallery
The University of Hong Kong
90 Boham Road, Hong Kong