The American Library

The American Library by Yinka Shonibare MBE is a celebration of the diversity of the American population. It aims to be an instigator of discovery and debate. The thousands of books in this art installation are covered in the artist’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textile. These fabrics were originally based on Indonesian batik textiles, made in the Netherlands and sold in West Africa. Since the 1960s this fabric has been celebrated as a symbol of African identity. The mixed origins of the fabric make it a perfect metaphor for the multicultural identity embedded in the history of the United States.

On the spines of many of these books are, printed in gold, the names of people who immigrated, or whose antecedents immigrated to the United States. On other books are the names of African Americans who relocated or whose parents relocated out of the American South during the Great Migration. These names include W. E. B. Du Bois, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Steve Jobs, Bruce Lee, Ana Mendieta, Joni Mitchell, Toni Morrison, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg, Carl Stokes, Donald Trump and Tiger Woods. These people have all made a significant contribution to aspects of American life and culture and represent every field from science to activism, music to philosophy and art to literature. Most of these people have also experienced varying degrees of discrimination and hardship during and after their or their family’s relocation. A further set of books within the library features the names of people who have spoken out against immigration, equality or diversity in America.

Through the website included in this installation you can learn more about the reasons for the migration of large groups of people and access content looking at immigration and internal mass migration from pro, anti and neutral viewpoints. Further information about the individuals named on the books is also available on this site.

The American Library is inspired by the ongoing debates about immigration and diversity in the United States, such as the discussion around the travel ban and the proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border to reduce immigration. It also looks at the discrimination against certain groups within the United States, despite their contributions to the country.

This installation asks us to consider what our society would be without the gifts that America’s immigrant populations and minority groups have brought to this land. It represents those seen as the ‘other’ who have made a valuable contribution to the nation’s history. However, it also looks at the people who have spoken out against those they don’t see as ‘truly American’ as a way to further explore these complex issues at the forefront of American life today.

This work was commissioned by Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art with funds from VIA Art Fund and with the assistance of James Cohan Gallery, New York. It is on display at the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College, North Carolina from October 25th until December 14, 2018.

Artist's Biography

Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA) was born in London in 1962 and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three. He returned to the UK to study Fine Art at Byam Shaw School of Art, London and Goldsmiths College, London, where he received his Master’s in Fine Art.

Shonibare has become well known for his exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalization. Working in painting, sculpture, photography, film and installation, Shonibare’s work examines race, class and the construction of cultural identity through a sharp political commentary of the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe and their respective economic and political histories. Shonibare uses wry citations of Western art history and literature to question the validity of contemporary cultural and national identities.

In 2002, Shonibare was commissioned by Okwui Enwezor to create one of his most recognized installations, Gallantry and Criminal Conversation for Documenta XI. In 2004, he was nominated for the Turner Prize and was awarded the decoration of Member of the ‘Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’, or MBE. In 2008, his mid-career survey commenced at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and toured to the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C. In 2010, his first public art commission Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was displayed on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London.

In 2013, Shonibare was elected as a Royal Academician and has since regularly contributed to The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. He curated two rooms for the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, during which Wind Sculpture VI was also displayed in the RA courtyard. In 2016 he created the RA Family Album, which was used to wrap Burlington Gardens building during construction.

Shonibare’s works are included in notable collections internationally, including the Tate Collection, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and VandenBroek Foundation, The Netherlands.


The Van Every/Smith Galleries

The Van Every/Smith Galleries play a fundamental role in the pedagogical life of Davidson College. The Galleries provide a challenging forum for the presentation, interpretation, and discussion of primarily contemporary artworks in all media for students and members of the Davidson community, as well as for national and international visitors to the campus. An on-going series of challenging exhibitions and lectures by visiting artists and scholars nurture individual thinking, develop visual literacy, and inspire a lifelong commitment to the arts.