The Contributions of Many

The Speed Art Museum and 21c Museum Hotel
Tackle Immigration in an Eye-Popping New Exhibition:

‘Yinka Shonibare CBE: The American Library’

By Laura Ross  |  Photos courtesy of the Speed Art Museum

What do Donald Trump, Steve Jobs and Bruce Lee have in common? They are all at the Speed Art Museum – as part of a new exhibition that looks at the diversity of America. The exhibition, which opened on March 29, is presented in partnership with the Speed Art Museum and 21c Museum Hotel. “Yinka Shonibare CBE: The American Library” aims to instigate conversation around the very timely topic of immigration, American identity and diversity.

The notable names appear with others on an art installation featuring thousands of books covered in artist Yinka Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax-printed cotton textile. The 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.

“Migration has always been part of America’s story and we hope that people visiting ‘The American Library’ will reflect on how immigration and migration have shaped our national identity over several centuries,” said Miranda Lash, curator of contemporary art at the Speed Art Museum.

Yinka Shonibare, CBE, is a British-Nigerian artist whose work has received international accolades for decades. Shonibare was recently named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), one of the nation’s highest honors, and was elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in 2013.

On the spines of the books in “The American Library” are the names of people who immigrated or whose parents immigrated to the United States. Other books hold the names of African Americans who relocated or whose parents relocated out of the American South during the Great Migration. Another set of books within the library features the names of people who have spoken out against immigration, equality or diversity in America.

Prominent names across the board 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, among many others.

The names on the book spines represent people who have all made a significant contribution to aspects of American life and culture and represent every field from science to activism, music, philosophy, art and literature. Most of these people have also experienced varying degrees of discrimination and hardship during and after their family’s relocation.

Visitors can access iPad stations that provide additional information on the individuals represented on the bookshelves. They can also write or draw their responses to the questions such as “What does it mean to be American?” and “How do you express your cultural identity?” in a special conversation space. Lash hopes that it will spark lively discussions among guests.

“We are a nation of many colors,” added Lash. “We’ve also created ‘Stories of Migration’ labels for objects in the Speed’s collection, showing how migration has affected many of the artworks in our Native American, African and European collections.”

The exhibition is showcased in the Speed’s 1927 gallery, which coincidentally, was once the Speed’s library in the early years of the museum. In addition to “The American Library,” the exhibition will feature artworks by Shonibare from the Speed and 21c Museum Hotel collections including Three Graces, (2001), The Age of Enlightenment – Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (2008), Food Faerie (2010) and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (2008).

“We are thrilled to collaborate with the Speed in presenting ‘The American Library,’” said 21c Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites. “In the face of the growing refugee crisis and resistance to immigration across the globe, we feel an urgency to share this work that celebrates the spectrum of voices that have created our nation’s culture and history while simultaneously acknowledging that there are others who have spoken out against diversity.”

Shonibare’s work examines race, class and cultural identity and explores the history of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalization. Shonibare’s works have been exhibited in public spaces across the globe, including several notable locations in London such as Trafalgar Square, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Academy of Arts. His work is also included in prominent 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 and more.

“The American Library” will be at the Speed through Sept. 15 and is free with general admission to the museum. The Speed and 21c Museum will present several public programs throughout the exhibition, including a naturalization ceremony in August celebrating new citizenship for 100 immigrants in Louisville.

“There are children being held in U.S. detention centers today, arriving there in the hope that they too can become American,” said Lash. “Though I was taught this poem as a child, I still remember the famous words by Emma Lazarus: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ My deepest hope is that young people see this installation as a call to empathy.” V

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‘Yinka Shonibare CBE: The American Library’

Public programs presented in association with “The American Library” include the following with more events announced soon on the Speed Art Museum website:

3 p.m. April 12 – The Speed Art Museum will host a Compass Peer Mentor and Ambassador program for Latino students presented in conjunction with the University of Louisville’s Cultural Center.

11 a.m. Aug. 9 – The Speed Art Museum will host a naturalization ceremony celebrating new citizenship for 100 immigrants in Louisville.

6 p.m. Sept. 13 – Gallery talk with Alice Gray Stites and Miranda Lash on “The American Library.”