Written By: Emily Appelbaum
Established in 1999, Sankofa Fine Arts Plus is a non-profit fine arts organization dedicated to developing, educating, and advocating for African American artists and other underrepresented visual artists through community collaboration.
Robin Robinson and Gary Williams, the driving force of Sankofa, are both award winning professional artists committed to bringing art with positive meaningful messages to the city’s streetscapes and public spaces (not just pretty pictures) for the purpose of instilling a sense of pride, empowerment and social inclusion in our otherwise voiceless and neglected communities.
This dynamic duo are the artists behind the impactful “Our Lives Matter” mural on the corner of E. 105th and Yale Ave, the monumental Ruby Dee on the exterior wall of Karamu House and several community driven murals around town.
Robin… you and Gary have been working together for a long time as executive board members of Sankofa Fine Arts Plus, as partners sharing studio space and a vision for the revitalization of an entire community. What is the secret to your collaborative success?
Gary is a Virgo (retired attorney), I am a Gemini (teacher/art therapist) although our astrology signs show tremendous differences, and we are two sides of the same coin. We strengthen each other’s weaknesses and sharpen each other’s strengths. We respect each other as artists, value each other’s opinions and we are ,above all, friends. We have both spent our lives as community advocates and believe in the power of art to heal individuals, communities, and the world.
Gary and I have been blessed to have the support and respect of a group of enormously talented local artists that see our vision of transforming E. 105th Street from a blighted area with boarded up buildings into an urban renaissance.
As an art therapist, I understand the value of color and meaningful content on the reparative physique of underrepresented, disenfranchised communities. Glenville is a community that has seen the best and worst of the socioeconomic climate of Cleveland. “Our Lives Matter” was a public answer to the mass frustrations and outcry of the community after the injustices of police shootings and lack of accountability. We were overwhelmed by the responses and appreciation that we have received from everyone because we gave that frustration a voice in a non-threatening manner.
Ultimately our plan is to bring together local artists, art institutions and the community to create monumental murals in Glenville. They will depict positive, uplifting images that will unify and invigorate the community with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Why have you dedicated yourselves to community murals?
Gary and I are professional artists first. We have our individual projects and visions. But we share a much larger vision to empower neighborhoods to share their unique voices in unity.
Murals are powerful experiences that can stir one’s imagination and desires. Community murals enable neighborhoods to communicate their collective hopes, memories, and pay tribute to local leaders. Community murals are a collective means of self-expression.
Murals work on a symbolic level, providing opportunities for communities to express important concerns, values and aspirations, their yearning to be free of violence and fear, their hopes for a better future, their desire for beauty in an otherwise bleak environment or just to be recognized as human beings in a forgotten society.
While the end product of works of public art are beautiful, their deeper value lies in the conversations we create, the connections we build and the legacy of relationships we foster along the way. The experience of art moves us from the everyday into the realm of possibility often with a transforming result.
What is a recent milestone you achieved in your work?
Our most recent milestone as a partnership was the collaboration with renowned Brazilian muralist Ananda Nahu and CPT this Fall. We were members of “Creative Fusion”, paring international artists with local artists to create murals in the Hingetown area of Cleveland. Gary and I agreed that Ananda’s community engagement philosophy and artistic style was so compatible with our own that it was a naturally seamless blend of passion and esthetics.
We were challenged to paint a monumental mural on the massive Westbound freeway off-ramp wall across from Lakeview Terrace Apartments. This wall isolates this entire CMHA community from the rest of the city. These residents had nothing to look at except a huge blank grey wall for years.
Within three months Ananda, Gary, and I transformed this eyesore into a monumental masterpiece. Now instead of people fearing this dark dank economically repressed community, they go out of their way to get a look at the largest mural in Ohio.
The community has gained a sense of pride and ownership of the mural. They watched over us as we painted every night until early in the morning. The faces of their children look down from the wall that is no longer an overshadowing reminder of oppression. It has now become a symbol of progress and possibility. Murals build a sense of community. They make neighborhoods welcoming and walkable, making you want to go there.
What is your favorite thing about winter?
As a muralist the majority of our finished work is outdoors. Winter is the time to prepare for next year. This is when we fundraise and write grants. Sankofa Fine Arts Plus concentrates more effort on programing and planing for upcoming events. Artists draft ideas for future murals and we attend countless community meetings. Although we are busy, winter is more relaxed and social.