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Yinka Shonibare’s “American Library,” The Whitney Goes Outside its Comfort Zone & More

Yinka Shonibare, MBE (RA). The American Library, 2018. @ Yinka Shonibare MBE. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. July 14-September 30, 2018. Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York and FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

Yinka Shonibare’s new installation The American Library opened last month as part of the inaugural FRONT International Cleveland Triennial. A sequel to the artist’s The British Library, the work continues to explore themes of open borders, freedom of speech, educational rights, and blended heritage. The installation reprises Shonibare’s regular practice of incorporating African wax cloth, commonly referred to as “Dutch Wax,” lining approximately six thousand books with the material. Stamped in gold across the spine, each book features the name of a first or second generation U.S. immigrant who has contributed significantly to the arts, science, or culture.

In a statement, the artist said that the books “act as metaphors for the autobiography of the individuals named.” But the installation functions as a reference library as well as a work of art. As was the case with The British Library, The American Library includes a searchable database of audio-visual material that illustrates why people have immigrated, this time made accessible though tablets. “It is incredibly important to point in the work to the emancipatory power of culture through a certain kind of reading,” the artist continues, “by that I mean the diverse inheritance of pedagogy.” The American Library will be on view through September 30 at the Cleveland Public Library.

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The Artist Speaks

Theaster Gates recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts in London. In his commencement address he encouraged graduates to “see all of the rich possibilities in nothingness.” He said:

“…to be an artist is one of the greatest vocations in the world.”

“To make is to grow… I have never felt more confident that to be an artist is one of the greatest vocations in the world. You guys have the capacity to dream and fight and this world needs you right now more than it’s ever needed any creative class.”

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