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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

Collection merges art and 400 years of history
Wells Fargo bringing famed Kinsey Collection to Gantt
Published Thursday, June 13, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

This oil canvas of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey was painted by longtime friend Artis Lane in 2002. It was commissioned by a group of friends for their anniversary.

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have spent the past three decades of their 46-year marriage accumulating one of the largest private collections of African-American artifacts and artwork.

“The Kinsey Collection: Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Where Art and History Intersect” offers an insightful journey through four centuries of African-American history, culture and heritage. It includes rare books, manuscripts, paintings, prints, sculpture, and photographs. Some of the most notable artifacts include letters by Zora Neale Hurston and Martin Luther King, Jr., correspondence between Malcolm X and Alex Haley, slave shackles, a first-edition copy of poems by Phillis Wheatley, a 1795 Bannaker’s Almanac and 17th century slave documents.

The Kinsey Collection also consists of works by renowned African-American artists such as Romare Bearden, Henry O. Tanner, Richmond Barthé, Lois Mailou Jones, Richard Mayhew, Artis Lane, and Jacob Lawrence.

The collection, which has been on national tour since 2007, is making its Charlotte debut opening to the public at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture June 29-Oct. 12.

Love on top

The Kinseys were college sweethearts. Both Florida natives, they met at Florida A&M University, married and moved to California right after college to build a life together.

The summer before their voyage to California, Bernard worked as a park ranger at the Grand Canyon.
“It kind of sparked our interest in travel,” said Shirley Kinsey. “When we first moved to California, we didn’t have any money. We would just get in our car and drive to parks.”

Their collection began as little souvenirs they would pick up along the way to remind them of their travels.

“Really, it wasn’t even art,” Kinsey said. “It was memories. We collected pinecones and rocks and sand and all that kind of stuff. Sometimes flowers. It was always just something to remind us of our visit to whatever park we were at.”

As the Kinseys traveled, they developed an interest in the lives of Native Americans and other indigenous cultures. They traveled to Alaska to learn more about Eskimos and found themselves more drawn to artistic expressions of history, culture and everyday life, such as pottery, paintings, basket weaving and things of the like.

Then, the Kinseys had a revelation.

“As much as we liked these other cultures, we realized that we didn’t know enough about our own culture,” said Kinsey. “Growing up in the South, you kind of leave that behind. You’re not getting away from it, but you don’t like the memories that you have of that so you start gravitating to other things.”

Black and proud

In 1977, two things happened. The couple had their first and only child – son Khalil. It was the same year Haley’s “Roots” debuted on television.

The Kinseys said watching the miniseries made them even more determined to learn about their own culture because they wanted to have something to pass along to their child.

However, it wasn’t until a few years later when Khalil was in third grade and assigned a family history report for school that they realized how much more they had to learn.

“When he came home, we couldn’t answer certain questions because we could only go back a few generations,” Kinsey said.

They called up the grandparents in Florida to fill in some of the missing pieces, but still could only trace the family’s history back but so far. After turning in his assignment and viewing the projects of his peers, Khalil told his parents about how his classmates were able to trace their roots back to France, Spain and other countries.

“That really got us going,” said Shirley. “We figured, even if we could only go back so for [with our own family], we could look at our ancestry and the people who did stuff a long time ago and really excelled and contributed to building this country.”

The prized collection

To date, the Kinsey Collection has been seen by over 3 million visitors in various museums around the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The collection has been cited in three national awards including the nation’s highest honor, The President’s Medal for Museum and Library Services, and was selected one of the “Top Ten Exhibits to see in the World.”

What separates the exhibit from many others is the Kinseys’ passion for collecting objects of extraordinary historical significance that tell the often untold story of African-American contribution and achievement.

“The Kinsey Collection strives to give our ancestors a voice, name, and personality, enabling the viewer to understand the challenges, obstacles, triumphs and extraordinary sacrifice of African-Americans who’ve greatly contributed to the success of this country, ” said Bernard Kinsey.

Another distinction is not so much what is included in the exhibit, but what is not. Unlike many other exhibits on African-American history, the Kinsey collection does not have a broad focus on the horrors of slavery or the dehumanization of African-Americans. It addresses that period in history without dwelling there. You will find no photos of black people being lynched or Ku Klux Klan memorabilia in the collection.

“We don’t shy away from it because it is part of our history,” said Shirley Kinsey. “I know all that stuff happened, but I don’t want to draw attention to and give power to that. That [KKK] element is still around, and I don’t want to give them a forum or a place in my space… We wanted to concentrate on the achievements and contributions of African Americans.”

The greater message

Kinsey said she hopes youth will come out to see the collection when it debuts in Charlotte.

“I think if our young people know more about where they come from and whose shoulders they stand on, they can become empowered and strengthened by that,” she said. “Now that even though we have a black president, there are still a lot of things that we need to do.”

She said she hopes that the exhibit will inspire all viewers, not just those that are African-Americans.

“I want all races to understand the contributions of African Americans to this country,” she said.

Wells Fargo is sponsoring the Kinsey Collection at the Gantt.

“Wells Fargo embraces the arts as a voice for history and culture,” said Kendall Alley, community banking regional president for Charlotte. “We are proud to partner with the Gantt Center to present the Kinsey Collection as a way to share an important story involving the rich history of African Americans, a history of identity and struggle for equality that is both unique and shared by other diverse segments of our society.”

Bernard, Shirley and Khalil Kinsey will attend an exclusive wine and champagne reception of the Kinsey Collection and give a private tour at the Gantt Center on June 27. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit www.ganttcenter.org.

Related article:

* Henry Louis Gates Jr. to speak at inaugural Gantt symposium June 27


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