THE MOST RECENT ADDITION to the art collection at The Mead Art Museum at Amherst College is a series of books. The museum acquired “The American Library (Activists)” by Yinka Shonibare, a large-scale installation of 234 books wrapped in the artist’s signature Dutch wax print fabric.

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-colored fabric, Shonibare presents to us the names of activists whose ideas may appeal to us—or appall us.”

“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 of the Mead Art Museum

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.

There is generally one constant throughout his work, brightly colored 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.”

“I’m very interested in the colonial relationships between Africa and Europe, and the fabrics have become a metaphor for that.” — Yinka Shonibare

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 Sept. 20.

 


YINKA SHONIBARE, Detail of “The American Library (Activists),” 2018 (hardback books, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, gold foiled names). | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York, Photo by Patrick Sampson

 

SHONIBARE STAYS BUSY. In addition to the display at the Cleveland triennial, he is presenting several other exhibitions around the world.

Last month, he curated “Talisman in the Age of Difference” at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, a group show that “explored magic and subversive beauty.” The exhibition featured about 30 artists of African descent “who empathize with the spirit of African resistance and representation,” including Romare Bearden, Sonia Boyce, Marlene Dumas, David Hammons, William Kentridge, Hew Locke, Wangechi Mutu, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, and Bill Traylor.

The artist is taking another turn as curator in the UK. “Criminal Ornamentation: Yinka Shonibare MBE curates the Arts Council Collection” opens Sept. 21 at Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester, and will travel to Exeter, Wakefield and Southampton.

On Aug. 23, the latest edition of The Artist Dining Room will host conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel at Shonibare’s Guest Projects space in East London. The immersive dining experience, hosted by Florence Ritter and curated by chef Liberty Greene Fennell, will explore Trockel’s “mysterious and uncanny world.”

Meanwhile, Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture (SG) I” is on view at the entrance to Central Park in New York City (through Oct. 14). A similar sculpture, “Wind Sculpture (SG) III,” has been acquired by the Norval Foundation and will go on permanent display in the Cape Town Sculpture Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, in February 2019.

Featuring new and never before exhibited works by Shonibare, “Ruins Decorated,” opens at Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on Sept. 1. The exhibition is the artist’s first solo show on the continent of Africa in 15 years.

AT AMHERST, “The American Library Collection (Activists)” will go on view Oct. 30. The Mead Art Museum described the new acquisition as being “part of ongoing initiatives that unearth and explore the multiple, often hidden narratives found throughout the history of art and ideas, and help audiences connect those to present-day challenges facing different communities.”

Toward that end, the museum is hosting a debate in the fall. Shonibare’s work will serve as a catalyst for a discussion among faculty members from a variety of academic disciplines about the global migration of people, commodities and ideas.

“At a time when questions of academic and intellectual freedom can be so contentious on college campuses and in the mass media,” Little said, “bringing this work to Amherst College supports our ongoing efforts to embrace open debate and discussion and seek ways in which art and artists can support these conversations.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: YINKA SHONIBARE, Detail of “The American Library (Activists),” 2018 (hardback books, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, gold foiled names). | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York, Photo by Patrick Sampson

 

BOOKSHELF
Many volumes have been published about Yinka Shonibare’s work. Recent titles include “Yinka Shonibare MBE: Magic Ladders,” which was published to coincide with an exhibition organized by the Barnes Foundation. A revised and updated edition of “Yinka Shonibare MBE,” published in 2014, is described as “the most comprehensive resource available on Shonibare.” “Yinka Shonibare” documents the artist’s 2002 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “Yinka Shonibare: Criminal Ornamentation,” a volume forthcoming in November 2019, accompanies the show the artist is curating for the Arts Council Collection.

 


YINKA SHONIBARE, “The American Library (Activists),” 2018 (hardback books, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, gold foiled names). | Courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York, Photo by Patrick Sampson

 
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