Photo of curator Khalil Kinsey in the Kinsey Collection gallery space.
Photo of curator Khalil Kinsey in the Kinsey Collection gallery space.

Engaging the Kinseys – A Conversation with Khalil Kinsey

What are some of your first memories of the collection? How has your relationship evolved with the collection over time?

My first memories of the collection were at home, my mother and father befriending and sharing the work of artists that they came to know and enjoy. From having formal art exhibitions in kind of gallery settings in my parents’ home where artists were sharing their work and my parents were inviting their friends to come support the work. Those are some of my earliest and fondest memories. Always an interesting experience based off of being at home and how it extended outward to the community. That is something that early on I remember and that continued to evolve throughout my lifetime.

How has your curatorial approach changed as you’ve been in charge of the body of the collection?

For a long time, from the beginning of my time in a formal role with the collection, it was with the intent to execute and stay true to what my parents’ original vision and intent was and is. But, I was also understanding that in a public space and as a public traveling exhibition that some of the vision wasn’t even there yet because it was such a natural evolution, such a surprise in some ways that this left their home and now became something that was being shared with the public. It was definitely a shared journey in which we’ve come to certain objectives and foundational concepts together. Me being the next generation of what I consider to be this bridge of generations, it has become very important to be thoughtful around how we share the narrative, who sees themselves in it from a multicultural view, from a shared American experience perspective, and having a youthful approach wherever we can that invites people who may not understand or feel welcomed in museum spaces. That has become more of my mission: to do things in unconventional ways, “cool” ways, ways that are counterintuitive but also that break up the status quo and disrupt. That’s been the beauty for me. Something that I’ve started to really enjoy and be cognizant of is that I’m not a museum professional by education or career. I came to this from the outside. Being in the arts and culture as far as my mother and father and my upbringing, I learned quickly that my instincts were right there. What it allowed for was that I was never indoctrinated into a set way of doing things. I come in asking “why not?” a lot of the time and that is something that I wouldn’t change and that I continue to go deeper with. Because in this time of heightened understanding and awareness and desire for progress, museums are asking those questions now, as well. The collection being public starting in 2006, some of the conversations we were trying to have or starting to have were a lot more difficult. Now there are incredible partners such as TAM that have raised their hands to say, “Hey, we’re interested in doing the work” while also doing it in a way that is embracing a demographic that hasn’t normally come through the doors. That is important.

“This is who we are. We’re not what you call us. We’re what we call ourselves.”

Given the recent prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for police reform, equity, and social justice, what do you hope people get out of this show? Why is this exhibition so important in our present moment?

It’s an interesting thing because we’ve been saying, the very foundation of the body of work of the collection is exemplifying that we matter. That has been it from the beginning. There are photographs of people and we don’t know their names, we don’t know where they were, but we know that they thought enough of themselves to go out and have their photos taken, to dress up in this dignified way. We know that they knew that they mattered. We take the approach of contribution, of highlighting and illuminating participation and contribution in as many facets as we can to show that Black people have been a part of this process and progress from the beginning. One of the biggest threads [of the collection] is the fact that we matter. Without us, imagine what this world would be, what America would be. Not only in the sense of manual labor or forced labor, which is something that can never be minimized. Just as equally, the actual ingenuity, the creativity, the soul, the hearts and minds of people who have participated at every level. Whether it be at war fighting for the ideals of America or whether it be beautiful, artistic contribution that was done at a time that made it even more difficult to be an artist because you’re Black: All of these things matter. That is what we’re trying to say in so many ways. I’ve said that in recent times that the conversation is around a base level of humanity, saying “Hey, we matter too.” It’s never been about saying that somebody else doesn’t. It’s simply saying the evidence shows that we’re treated like we don’t matter. So, if that is the conversation then we’re here to further double down and show you through facts, through primary source material, all of the ways that we matter and matter greatly. That is our contribution to the movement.

“[…] we’re here to further double down and show you through facts, through primary source material, all of the ways that we matter and matter greatly.”

You have mentioned the importance of the Harlem Renaissance not only historically but also as it relates to contemporary works and fostering a community. Through that lens, how would you like to see the collection evolve? What works do you feel help “fill out the story?”

History is often taught in silos and it’s not taught in a connected, cohesive way. You get the top level of things without seeing the true connection of it all. I think that’s truly where the growth and the understanding are: knowing that nothing is done individually; things don’t happen in a vacuum; that people do all of these things together. Progress is made together. There’s a prime example of it during the Harlem Renaissance as far as people casting off the shackles of slavery, fighting through Jim Crow, coming back from World War I, all of these things. But then establishing a different identity, a self-determined identity and saying, “This is who we are. We’re not what you call us. We’re what we call ourselves.” That is very much something that continues to live on and thrive in so many different ways.

What I’ve really honed in on as far as the bedrock for the Harlem Renaissance, something which still exists today, is community. These are people just like ourselves who shared time and space with each other, who influenced each other, inspired each other, supported each other. That’s how it builds. It’s not in one way or the other. It’s not simply visual arts. It’s literature. It’s theater. It’s activism. It’s business. All of these things. I’ve been focusing in on those concepts to say that that time is this time. It’s not a renaissance at all. It’s not a rebirth. This is something that has been living for all of this time. There is a lot of power in recognizing that. Especially in the Black community. Especially because of the dismantling, the erosion of progress that we’re living through now with issues like voter suppression. All these different things that are very real threats to our existence.

My grandfather used to say, and this used to seem absurd to me, but he used to say, “You know we’re only a few signatures from being back in slavery.” When you think about how this works politically and how disenfranchisement works, it’s not so farfetched. The power is in understanding that we continue to make progress, that there is a common thread, and there’s power to be harnessed from the example of the past. There are things to learn to not repeat, to be understanding of. I don’t know of any other time in American history from a creative level and a movement level where all these things were wrapped up in one. That was this explosion of brilliance. That’s what I refer to it as: it’s just brilliance. If we don’t call it that, if we don’t call these people what they were, then we’re continuing that same kind of obscurity and not honoring them. The number one thing is we have to honor it so that we understand and are able to harness it and bring it forward. If we don’t understand history then it’s disrespectful to our ancestors, to not understand that we’re standing on their shoulders and that we have a duty to that.

“[…] the power is in understanding that we continue to make progress, that there is a common thread, and there’s power to be harnessed from the example of the past.”

The University of Hong Kong show Rising Above was the first time items from the collection had been exhibited outside the United States. Why do you think that was important? What kind of impact do you think that made on people who don’t necessarily know very much about American history, let alone Black history in America?

We are always interested in paving new ground, blazing new trails, and going places that may seem counterintuitive or unconventional. We also, as my father would say, we go where we’re invited. That alone will tell you that people either understand or they have a desire to understand and share. That’s how Hong Kong came about. It’s always a no-brainer for us. When we do something like the Atlanta History Center, which is traditionally a Confederate history museum, why wouldn’t we do that? You’re offering things that hopefully break down some walls, connect some dots. Hong Kong was one of those that was exciting for us. We love Hong Kong, number one. Some early travels with my parents, some of my early international travels were to Hong Kong. That’s been a great part of the world in our lives. Much like here, there is a limited knowledge and understanding of Black history there. Right? It kind of was the same. It was a no-brainer. It was like, “We’re doing the same thing.”

What we saw, though, is there was some trepidation from some people in the community who were like, “Well, how does this pertain to us?” But we also know that comes from a limited understanding of Black contribution coupled with limited knowledge of American history at large and why certain things are the way they are or significant. What we quickly saw was, because it’s a human story, people were able to relate their own histories to certain parts of our history. Whether it be colonialism, whether it be oppression. Those types of things. But also the creative side. For example, I had a group of Chinese ladies who — it’s funny because I’m in touch with them to this day. They’re older, in their fifties and sixties; they invited me to have brunch with them. They came in and they saw certain pieces, one I’m thinking of is an abstract by Bob Blackburn, and they said, “This looks Chinese.” Certain pieces they couldn’t believe were African American art. That’s it right there. Because what we say is that there’s no such thing. There’s no such thing, really. It’s just creativity. It’s just something that’s coming from your spirit. We always say that art is one of the highest forms of thought. It’s bringing the intangible and making that tangible. People connect to that; people connect to that spirit.

We went from being an exhibition where people were like, “Eh, I don’t know. Why?” to having over thirty media events and the Hong Kong Philharmonic doing a sold-out concert on their own volition for the closing of the exhibition inspired by the collection and Black history. It was this full circle kind of thing where people became champions of the exhibition when at first they didn’t have any interest. There’s a blog post from an attorney in Hong Kong that I discovered out of the blue. He wrote that very thing. He says, “I had no intent or interest in visiting this exhibition” and he talks about how it was a life changing experience. That just says that there’s more to connect on than we think and that this is thinking about humanity, thinking about how we can tell our stories, see each other in them, and hopefully that creates some sort of empathy and bond and support. We’ve seen it in Colombia. We haven’t exhibited there yet. COVID kind of put those talks on pause but we’ve done some outreach there. With the Colombian population at large and also the Afro-Colombian population who — they’ve yet to even really have a Civil Rights moment. They’re still dealing with things that we dealt with in the 50s and 60s — which we’re still struggling with in some ways, but to know where we are, for me that put a lot of perspective on things because we get into this thing where we haven’t made any progress and things are so tough and all of that. And they are. No doubt. Here in America. But to know that there are societies that haven’t even reached some of the progress points, and don’t know how to, don’t feel the agency, don’t feel the empowerment. That’s really remarkable. To be able to assist in telling these stories so people can relate to them and then use them in their own lives for their own humanity is what I think has kind of come to be our mission.

“We always say that art is one of the highest forms of thought. It’s bringing the intangible and making that tangible. People connect to that; people connect to that spirit.”

Other than buying art from Black artists, what are some other ways people can support Black artists in their communities?

I always say now, it’s really easy to share; and, I do stuff, whether it be on Instagram or whatever it is — just spreading the word. You never know what somebody is going to connect to. That’s just an easy thing. It costs you nothing. If you like it, share it with others. I think that that helps a lot. There are people who have said to me, “You put something up the other day and now that’s my favorite artist and now I’m looking to buy their work.” And I may not even know the artists. I’ve just enjoyed what I’ve seen. I think that’s something we can do more of. Overall, just sharing inspiration is a big thing. Attending gallery openings. Just showing up is big. Being a part of the overall arts community and being of support in whatever way you can be. From there: building relationships, understanding what an artist’s work is, what their intent is, what their objectives are. You can be of more service. I always say the number one thing is that it starts with awareness. If I’m aware of you and what you’re doing in your space, and you’re aware of me, then you’ll be top of mind when something comes up that may benefit you or that may be good for you to be a part of. Again, it comes down to being part of community in all of its forms. Not saying, “Well, I can’t participate financially. I can’t afford that.” Or, “I don’t like that.” Or whatever that may be. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways to push something.

What is your collecting philosophy? What dictates the pieces you seek out and add to the collection?

As you know, we refer to this [the Kinsey Collection] as where art and history intersect. We say that because when we’re speaking about any of it, it’s through the lens of history. When we’re talking about African American art, it’s hard to remove Black existence from the lens of history because there’s always that added layer to think about when it comes to the time in which these people were creating. It just heightens the significance. We are always looking to fill in the gaps of human connection and contribution.

At face value [we are] always remembering that this was not intended to be a public museum traveling exhibition. This was something started by my mother and father, things that they liked and enriched their home, that they wanted to live with. By extension, that didn’t just come down to them wanting to collect the most pristine representation of an artist at their height. It was about what they connected to and how they connected to it in a few different ways. Some might remind them of growing up in Florida. Some might remind them of travels. Whatever it may be. That’s how it started. The historical aspect was my father receiving a document in the early 80s from a colleague who had discovered a bill of sale for a human being in his great aunt’s attic. Her house had been boarded up. The colleague was a friend of my father’s, white guy, who was kind of ashamed. He said, “I got this thing. I don’t know what to do with it.” He was reluctant to even tell my father what it was. But he sent it to my father. That’s what my dad always says was one of the big catalysts for him wanting to learn more about how we got in this predicament in America around race. Then it came to be about filling in these gaps in understanding. Going into the contribution, to actually cement and document the mighty contributions of our people to the American people. Now we look at collecting through that lens. There’s always the balance because we still collect for personal reasons, too. Between shows, it’s always this dance that we do. My parents will be like, “We need this back at home. I want to see this again.” Now we just got into something where I’m probably going to be putting a piece of mine into the show here [at TAM] but, they’re important to the story.

What we do now is we’re looking at things that at face value may seem benign on their own; but, when put in the context and connective tissue of other pieces and chronology and all that, they become incredibly significant parts to the story. They are these certain things — pivotal moments, whether it be political or whatever it may be — they’re pivotal moments that people don’t know about but they actually might have been the deciding factor on something. We have a document that is Andrew Jackson writing to the Secretary of War that he’s not going to honor this agreement with the Civilized Native American tribes. It’s the actual document that effectively started the Trail of Tears and the removal of Native Americans from their land, going into Oklahoma and elsewhere. At face value, you won’t even know that’s what that document is. When you put it in context, it allows you to go into the full story. There’s so many different things.

“[…] it came to be about filling in these gaps in understanding. Going into the contribution, to actually cement and document the mighty contributions of our people to the American people.”

My father really is the historian. He looks at the history deeply and how to tell these stories. I look at the art in a certain way. “How can we tell multiple stories with one piece?” For instance, we have a sketch of James Baldwin by Romare Bearden when they were in Paris. Now we can talk about both of them but what we can really talk about is the relationship, the community. We have something from Charles White to Alonzo Aden — who, by the way, had the first Black-owned gallery in Washington D.C. in the 1930s. And it wasn’t a Black gallery. It was a multicultural gallery — the piece though, it’s Charles White and a sketch of his friend. We can now speak to that relationship. You’re not only showing a great piece of art and talking about a great artist, but you’re talking about this connection and the significance of these people. That’s the lens in which we’re collecting and sharing. It’s with the narrative in mind. It’s always with the enjoyment aspect of actually appreciating the work, how it lives in different spaces, and how it enhances people’s understanding of human connection and human story, the brilliance of our people and the strength of our people.

The Kinsey African American Art and History in Collection is on view at the Tacoma Art Museum from July 31 through November 28, 2021.

Photograph courtesy of Pic Van Exel.