FRONT: An American City, The American Library
Some 6,000 new volumes are headed to the Cleveland Public Library, but they will not be available for either checkout or reference consultation. Rather, they are elements of one of FRONT International’s public art exercises, The American Library, conceived by Yinka Shonibare, MBE (RA).
At this moment in American history, Shonibare’s title is almost a provocation. The spines of The American Library’s books will be marked with the name of a noteworthy or historic figure who is either an immigrant to the United States, or descended from recent immigrants. The exhibition is thus both a celebration of immigrants’ contributions and a reassertion of their Americanness in the face of Trump-era nativism.
The American Library is something of a sequel to a project first displayed in 2014, The British Library. Shonibare says that earlier project was born in the lead-up to the UK’s referendum on European Union membership. Pro-Brexit voices often railed against the EU’s relatively liberal immigration policies, and against migrants themselves.
“There was a huge increase in xenophobia, general abuse both online and sometimes physically…. That’s when I started to think about immigrants’ contribution,” Shonibare said. (The artist himself was born in London and currently resides there, but spent much of his childhood in Nigeria.) He was moved to create a similar project in the US by the presidency of Donald Trump, who promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, and has stranded DACA recipients in legal limbo.
Some of the figures profiled in The American Library are textbook success stories—Steve Jobs (son of a Syrian man), Joni Mitchell (a Canadian), and Barack Obama (son of a Kenyan man). Others reflect the brutal conditions under which many people were brought to the Americas. Among these are the sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who was descended from West African slaves, Haitians, and white slave owners. Still others are living embodiments of the tensions and contradictions in Americans’ attitudes towards foreign residents—chiefly Trump himself, the son of a Scottish mother and grandson of German migrants.
Shonibare said that he included restrictionists like Trump to depict the spectrum of American views on immigration. Acknowledging this complexity, the artist says, keeps the work from becoming preachy or propagandistic.
“I wanted a work that will show two sides of the debate,” Shonibare said.
Arguably, however, Trump’s inclusion in The American Library reinforces a pro-immigrant position. It reminds us of the parallels between contemporary anti-Latino racism and the hostility German immigrants faced in the early decades of the twentieth century, especially during World War I. And in light of his own family’s history, Trump’s desire to curb immigration (even legal immigration) takes on the appearance of pulling up a ladder his own family climbed to fortune.
But in any case, The American Library represents the reality of the world’s diversity and increasing interdependence, a fact not even the US president can change. Perhaps the most apt symbol of cosmopolitanism’s inescapability is the batik fabric in which The American Library’s books are wrapped. That textile is a signature of Shonibare’s oeuvre. Bought in London, the fabric is manufactured in the Netherlands, and designed to resemble traditional Indonesian patterns. Despite being inspired by an Oceania aesthetic, the most lucrative market for batik proved to be Africa. It’s a perfect example of a cultural artifact that could only be brought about by the twisty, zigzagging networks of cultural exchange that define the globalized modern world.
But besides being an exploration of immigration, The American Library is also very much a celebration of “the people’s university.” FRONT will be hosting projects in numerous landmarks and venues not normally associated with the region’s studio arts culture. These include Playhouse Square, the West Side Market, St. John’s Episcopal Church, the Federal Reserve Bank, and even the Steamship William G. Mather, docked by the Great Lakes Science Center. Cleveland Public Library, likewise, is not usually thought of as a fine arts destination on par with area museums and galleries, even though it possesses a robust collection of art and regularly hosts exhibitions. In recent years, it has displayed a rare First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, and a retrospective on the 75-year lifetime of the DC Comics hero Superman.
However, The American Library will still break new ground for the institution. Aaron Mason, the assistant director of Outreach and Programming Services at CPL, said that The American Library will be the first large-scale installation work ever displayed inside CPL.
Mason said that in discussions with FRONT organizers, it became apparent early on that Shonibare’s project was the triennial project best suited for CPL.
“It was a no-brainer. I’m a huge fan of [Shonibare’s] work outside of the British Library,” Mason said. He also said that out of all the proposed projects for FRONT, The American Library best matched CPL’s mission and expertise—specifically, the research expertise of the librarians, curators, and archivists. The library is offering not only its space to host The American Library, but it also enlisted staff to compile most of the names listed on Shonibare’s books. They also assembled short biographies of each of the listed names, which visitors will be able to browse on iPads located within the exhibit.
Terry Metter, a subject department librarian at CPL, was one of about two dozen library employees who, over a period of eight weeks, assembled some 3,000 immigrant profiles.
“It’s the kind of research we do all the time. We have the resources and knowledge to do it,” Metter said. He said it was exciting that the work librarians do will be recognized during the international exhibition.
Local history will also be showcased in The American Library. Metter said that among the immigrants profiled are the public art sculptor Herman Matzen, Rockefeller Park bridge architect Charles F. Schweinfurth, and Eleanor Edwards Ledbetter, a librarian and researcher of Eastern European folklore in Northeast Ohio.
The American Library will be on display July 14 through September 30 at the Main Library, located at 325 Superior Avenue. For more information, go to cpl.org or frontart.org.
FRONT at Large
Northeast Ohio’s museums and nonprofit galleries—the CMA, Transformer Station, SPACES, the Akron Art Museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum, MOCA Cleveland—are both instrumental partners in FRONT International and sites of some of its most exciting artistic exercises. However, the triennial is also bringing innovative and provocative work into the community by inhabiting spaces not normally associated with studio arts. Here are eight Northeast Ohio landmarks opening their doors to global artists:
Cleveland Clinic Main Campus
Patients at the Cleveland Clinic have surely noticed art in its hospitals’ lobbies and hallways. But the healthcare network also has a space devoted entirely to art: the Larry Pollock Gallery. During FRONT, that facility will host work by Sharon Lockhart. Lockhart is known for photographic essays informed by the intimate rapport she cultivates with communities in nations as diverse as Poland, Brazil, and Japan. The Pollock Gallery is located between the Q and G Buildings on the clinic’s Main Campus at 9500 Euclid Avenue. That campus will also be the site of a large-scale work by Jan van der Ploeg, a Dutch painter whose work is geometric and minimalist, but also warm and welcoming. That piece will be in the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Pavilion, which on campus maps is also called the J Building.
Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
In what appears to be a bold act of self-deprecation, the Federal Reserve will devote the length of its main lobby to host Volatility Smile, a large-scale animation by Philip Vanderhyden. This video installation uses imagery such as slot machines and Hollywood blockbuster-style mass destruction to express many Americans’ bewilderment and fear of the financial system. The bank is located at 1455 East 6th Street.
South African artist Candice Breitz explores the production of empathy in Love Story. This video installation pairs interviews with refugees and human rights activists alongside dramatic re-readings of those same interviews by Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. The intended effect is juxtaposition of indulgence in empathy manufactured by the entertainment industry on the one hand, and widespread indifference to real suffering on the other. Love Story will be screened in the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre at 1407 Euclid Avenue.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Dawoud Bey brings alive local history through a series of photographs inspired by runaway slaves who fled to Canada by way of Ohio. The exhibition, Night Coming Tenderly, Black, will be displayed in the real-world Underground Railroad stop St. John’s Episcopal Church. The church is located at 2600 Church Avenue.
Toby’s Plaza, CWRU
Toby’s Plaza is the open space at the intersection of Mayfield Road and Euclid Avenue, abutting the campuses of Case Western Reserve University, MOCA Cleveland, and the Cleveland Institute of Art. The square is named for Toby Devan Lewis, who from 1985 to 2005 curated the prestigious art collection of the Progressive Corporation. FRONT will bring to the plaza Judy’s Hand Pavilion, a public sculpture by Cincinnati-born artist Tony Tasset. True to its name, Judy’s Hand Pavilion is an outdoor shelter comprised of a painstakingly detailed, vastly magnified model of a human hand. The hand is that of Judy Ledgerwood, an abstract painter and Tasset’s spouse.
This Frank Lloyd Wright-designed residence, now owned by Oberlin College, will become the creative home of the Venezuelan-Portuguese artist Juan Araujo, who is known for creating architecture-inspired works exploring Modernism in Latin America. The house is located at 534 Morgan Street, Oberlin.
Steamship William G. Mather
The decommissioned steam ship will be the site of Fish Story and Lottery of the Sea, a collection of nautical photographs by the late Allan Sekula. A cargo hold which was once used to haul coal and ore throughout the Great Lakes will become a gallery of images exploring the impact of industry and commerce on society, and on the practice of photography in particular. The Mather is docked at the Great Lakes Science Center, 601 Erieside Avenue.
Canvas City Downtown Mural Program
After most FRONT exercises wind down in September, the Canvas City program will continue displaying new works over the next three years. The mural project seeks to rekindle a public art project started in Cleveland 45 years ago. It will begin with a restoration of a 1973 mural by the late Op artist Julian Stanczak. Stanczak’s mural will be restored at its original location on the Winton Manor building at Prospect Avenue and 9th Street. Over the coming months and years, Canvas City will also host works by contemporary artists working in the Rust Belt and around the world. The slated participants are Kay Rosen of Gary, Indiana; Odili Donald Odita, a Nigerian-American in Philadelphia; the UK-born, New York-based Sarah Morris; and Heimo Zobernig of Austria. In addition to these large-scale works, FRONT will also curate a gallery exhibition of the muralists’ work, and geography-specific augmented reality experiences. The murals will appear in various locations between Public Square and Playhouse Square.