Press Release

21c Museum and Speed Art Museum to Present Yinka Shonibare MBE’s The American Library Opening March 30, 2019

Louisville, KY
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The monumental installation will be presented in the Speed Art Museum’s historic library and accompanied by key works by the artist from the 21c and Speed collections

Opening on March 30, 2019, 21c Museum and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY will present a co-curated exhibition of British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE’s The American Library, a large-scale installation of thousands of books covered in the artist’s signature textiles with the names of people who have contributed to our collective understanding of diversity and immigration in the United States printed in gold on the spines. The immersive installation will be on view in the Speed Art Museum’s original galleries from 1927, which formerly housed a library, activating the historic space. Additional works by Shonibare from the 21c Museum and Speed collections will provide further context. Commissioned by Front International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, the work was recently on view at the Van Every/Smith Galleries, Davidson College, North Carolina ahead of its forthcoming presentation at the Speed Art Museum this spring. This exhibition marks the first time the Speed Art Museum and 21c Museum have co-organized a major exhibition.

The American Library is inspired by ongoing debates about immigration and diversity in the United States. The installation comprises bookshelves holding over 6,000 volumes covered in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton, a material whose mixed origins reflect the history of colonization, and are printed with gilded names of figures who have made a significant contribution to American culture and/or have influenced public discourse on immigration. The selected names, which 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, fall into the following categories: people who immigrated or whose parents immigrated to the U.S., African Americans who relocated or whose parents relocated out of the American south during the Great Migration, or people who have spoken out against immigration, equality, or diversity in the United States. In the gallery, visitors can access a website that provides additional information on each individual represented on the bookshelves.

“We at 21c are thrilled to collaborate with the Speed to present The American Library,says 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. We hope this exhibition will provide opportunities to better understand the complexity of these political and cultural debates.”

“It feels both timely and meaningful to be collaborating with 21c on an exhibition that acknowledges the many facets of the debate surrounding immigration and the innumerable ways that the United States has benefited from the contributions of migrants and immigrants,” says Miranda Lash, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Speed Art Museum. “Empathy is often enhanced by education, and Shonibare’s masterful installation of books and his online database of names, illuminates that this country was built by individuals coming from many different backgrounds and places.”

Yinka Shonibare MBE’s work examines race, class, and cultural identity and explores the history of colonialism and post-colonialism within the contemporary context of globalization. Working across media, including painting, sculpture, photography, film, and installation, Shonibare’s work provides insightful political commentary on the tangled interrelationship between Africa and Europe and their respective economic and political histories. In addition to The American Library, the 21c and Speed exhibition will feature other works by Shonibare, including:

The Three Graces (2001), depicting three headless mannequins dressed in Shonibare’s signature Dutch wax fabric, the Three Graces was inspired by a photograph of three women in Edwardian dress that the artist found in the archives of the Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum in Rome, Italy. As a trio, the sculpturesallude to the theme of “The Three Graces” found in classical sculptures from ancient Greece. Their Edwardian styled dresses meanwhile, speak to the history of Great Britain’s colonization of Africa.

The Age of Enlightenment - Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet (2008), a sculpture from Shonibare’s series inspired by key historic figures and thinkers from the 18th century, presented as headless mannequins dressed in his signature Dutch wax fabrics that question and interrogate the ideas embraced during the Age of Reason that supported and justified colonial expansion. This sculpture depicts female mathematician, physicist, and author Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châteletand comments upon her status and treatment as an intellectual woman in this period.

Food Faerie (2010) is a sculptural representation of a winged child carrying mangoes in a leather pouch, with one arm held aloft as if holding a spear. Dressed in the style of Victorian England and Dutch wax fabric designed by the artist, this sculpture examines how identity is shaped by both mythology and by capital markets, alluding to England’s colonial control of regions and resources in West Africa.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (2008) combines references toGoya’s 18th-century critiques of the Spanish Church and State with allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shonibare questions the ongoing impact of the theories of the Enlightenment period on world history and on contemporary geo-politics.

Public Programs presented in association with The American Library include:

  • Friday, March 29, 2019, 5-8pm: Opening Night, Welcome by Alice Gray Stites and Miranda Lash at 6pm.
  • Friday, April 12, 2019, 3pm: The Speed Art Museum will host a Compas Peer Mentor and Ambassador program for Latino students, presented in conjunction with the University of Louisville’s Cultural Center.
  • Friday, August 9, 2019, 11 am: The Speed Art Museum will host a Naturalization Ceremony celebrating new citizenship for 100 immigrants in Louisville.
  • Friday, September 13, 6 pm: Gallery talk with Alice Gray Stites and Miranda Lash on The American Library. 

Please visit or for more information.

Exhibition season support at the Speed Art Museum is provided by:

A. Cary Brown and Steven E. Epstein

Paul and Deborah Chellgren

Debra and Ronald Murphy

Contemporary exhibition support at the Speed Art Museum is provided by:

Augusta and Gill Holland

Emily Bingham and Stephen Reily


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© Yinka Shonibare MBE. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New York and FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art with funds from VIA Art Fund

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