A unique collection of collages, paintings, videos and dolls waits in the Brown Gallery and Museum at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.
Multimedia artist Anike Robinson’s exhibit “Gris Gris Gurlz” opens Thursday. According to Robinson's artist statement, the collection tells the stories of the men, women and children who escaped the death camps of the South for the autonomy of Maroon Societies.
“It’s basically the visual manifestation of a story, and the story is mixed with myth and historical facts and my own fiction,” Robinson said. “The point of it is that these dolls represent some of my ancestors. They imbue some of the ideas of my ancestors that were both free and enslaved in the United States in the dolls themselves.”
She imagines the painted dolls as supernaturally gifted women who use their powers to travel to the present and save “the future of the future.” To Robinson, the “future of the future” is 2022 — a year of political division and civil unrest.
Stone Center Director Joseph Jordan said that the center first reached out to Robinson after learning about her unique vision for her artwork.
“It wasn't so much her work as it was her idea about what she wanted to do,” he said. “And nine times out of 10, that's what we invite artists to do.”
The term “gris gris” refers to a small bag-shaped talisman in West African spirituality said to protect the wearer from harm. Arturo Lindsay, a guest curator at the Stone Center, is passionate about the creative vision of “Gris Gris Gurlz,” particularly the spiritual inspiration behind the exhibit.
“When you think about our ancestry, you think of the struggle — your ancestors, you know, being as vulnerable as they were to catastrophic things that occurred to them,” said Lindsay, who taught at Spelman College when Robinson was a student there. “Holding on to something or creating something where you center your energy becomes, I think, very important.”
Robinson said she calls herself a carnival, as she does many different forms of art at once. She is a writer, a collagist, a sculptor, fabric artist, a printmaker and a body painter. During the opening of “Gris Gris Gurlz” on Thursday, two performers will stand in as “living gris gris dolls.”
“This is a place where I get to feel right, in many ways,” Robinson said. “I feel right with the universe, I feel centered and healthy and good. So when I'm joyous, or even when I'm having an anxiety and depression-filled day or month, this is the thing that helps me power through.”
The dolls, which stand in the center of the exhibit, were the catalyst that inspired the other pieces. She said that she sees them as friends, and each has a unique personality and backstory.
One doll, for example, is a rattle whose head is filled with rice. This represents the seeds and grains that slaves stowed in their cornrows to plant when they escaped bondage. Details like these bring the dolls to life and invite the viewer to examine the motifs and symbols used in their design more closely.
“She knew the names of each one, and she'd be talking to them," Lindsay said. "That life force, you know, that continues to work, and makes the viewer question ‘Am I looking at religious work or am I looking at very, very modern and postmodern contemporary art?’ I think that if an object makes you think, aesthetically and content-wise, then the art is doing its job.”
The opening of “Gris Gris Gurlz” lasts from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and included a Gallery Talk and an artist reception. The exhibition will run through the fall and closes on December 10.
Robinson has additional plans to tell the story of her dolls in the future. This might take the form of a book, a graphic novel or perhaps even a short film, she said.
“But it is the art that allows me to free myself from the traditional constraints of chapters and what a story, book or novel is," Robinson said. "It means there are many ways to tell a story that you can access and see. I've thought about graphic novels and also, I've done some little short films with them. So I think the plan is to keep making dolls, because it makes me happy — even though my professors told me I have enough.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.