Yinka Shonibare’s ‘American Library’ Designed to Start a Conversation About Immigration
The spines of most of the books feature the name of a first or second generation American writer inscribed on its spine in gold foil. The writers have an “activist” bent. Notables include Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983), Grace Paley (1922-2007), Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), Harry Belafonte (1927-), Delores Huerta (1930-), Ralph Nader (1934-), Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), Sonia Sotomayor (1954- ), Sonja Sohn (1964-), and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969-).
Pat Buchanan and David Duke are also among those mentioned. The figures—both historic and contemporary—span the political and moral spectrum. According to the museum, “Shonibare’s work was created as a commentary on how literature can knit together disparate points of view—and how such intellectual processes can also serve to normalize extremist perspectives.” The artist is cautiously celebrating diversity.
“Yinka Shonibare’s library highlights the vital, complex, and important contributions of American immigrants, and the descendants of immigrants, who brought forward ideas that represent a spectrum of social and political thought,” David E. Little, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum, said in a statement.
“Touching on current debates on immigration, the artist invites viewers to consider the varied people and cultural sources that inform our sense of history and culture and shape our perceptions of our own place within it. With brightly-coloured fabric, Shonibare presents to us the names of activists whose ideas may appeal to us—or appall us.”
There is generally one constant throughout his work, brightly coloured textiles widely viewed as Afrocentric. The printed batik fabric has a convoluted past that speaks to the hybrid nature of national and cultural origins and the interdependence of the economic and political histories of Africa and Europe.
“The fabrics are a signifier of the identity of people from Africa and the African diaspora, but more importantly, how they encounter with Europe,” Shonibare recently told Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.
“The textiles I use were actually produced by the Dutch and then sold to West Africans, yet they’re now known as markers of African identity. I’m very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have become a metaphor for that.”
After years of using the Dutch wax fabric to create costumes for his mannequin sculptures, the artist began wrapping books with the textile in 2014. First, he created “The British Library” which explores “the impact of immigration on all aspects of British culture and considers notions of territory and place, cultural identity, displacement and refuge.” The spines of the books in this collection feature the names of immigrants who have contributed significantly to UK culture, including Ozwald Boateng, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Zaha Hadid, Mick Jagger, and Anish Kapoor, for example.
For his latest version of the work, Shonibare turned his attention to the United States. “The American Library” was commissioned specifically for the inaugural edition of FRONT International in Cleveland. The Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Mass., describes its “activists” acquisition as an extension of this larger work, which also includes groupings of filmmakers, scientists, and politicians. Composed of 6,000 books displayed in bookcases, “The American Library” is currently on view at the Cleveland Public Library through September 20.
Born in Britain and raised in Nigeria, Shonibare’s practice explores issues of race, class, and cultural identity through the lens of colonialism and migration. He works in a variety of mediums, including sculpture, painting, film and photography.
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