‘Black Art Library’ Comes To Detroit’s MOCAD

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In February of last year, independent curator and arts educator Asmaa Walton founded the Black Art Library when she started collecting literary pieces on Black artists from various donors and online sales. The mobile, pop-up library and interactive installation features a variety of books and related ephemera dedicated to Black artists. The purpose was to create a “living archive of global Black creativity,” a place where the community could come together and view these works.

And why? For starters, there are gaps in art history education programs across numerous institutions that all but ignores the impact of Black visual artists. By re-envisioning a more inclusive view of art history that celebrates Black voices, we can begin to tell the story of many of these creatives and their contributions to the art world.

Now, you can view the library at Detroit’s MOCAD from now until April 18th, 2021. In addition to the collection curated by Walton, there will also be a virtual book club and featured readings from the library, online or socially-distanced in a live setting. In the collection, guests will find monographs, children’s books, exhibition catalogs, memoirs, art history books, and all of the other archives and memorabilia one would expect.

While the collection will only live at MOCAD for a few months, Walton is also raising funds for a permanent space in Detroit that will house the growing non-lending library.

We caught up with Walton to discuss what inspired the pop-up library and some of the pieces you’ll find on display.

What made you start the Black Art Library?

I was trying to think of a way to combine my love for Black art, my work in arts education, and my interest in serving the Black community. I decided that creating an educational resource could be a great way to spread knowledge in a fun and interesting way. I also love art books, so the Black Art Library is a reflection of all of my favorite things.

The collection centers on Black art and visual culture—what do you see as the institutional gaps in art history education, and how can we seek to eradicate these deficits?

For me, these gaps didn’t even become apparent until after finishing undergrad because I realized there was so much I didn’t know. My university didn’t offer any African American Art history courses or any art history classes that covered the African diaspora. Even in my contemporary art course, I only learned about one or two Black artists. Looking back, I think universities that offer art history as a major need to make sure to include a wider variety of courses to produce well-rounded art historians.

As far as other institutions, such as museums, I think they are a little further along in the work because they’ve started to acknowledge the value of Black art, and it is making it into their collections. But they still have a long way to go in properly supporting these artists.

What kind of materials would one find in the collection?

The collection has a wide range of almost 400 books, including exhibition catalogues in artists, art historical texts, biographies, and children’s books (written/and or illustrated by Black artists). In addition to books, the collection also includes ephemera such as exhibition brochures, flyers, and even a t-shirt. I’ve begun to collect other forms of media such as DVDs, CDs, 35mm slides of works by Black artists, and more recently, vinyl from an artist’s exhibition.

What are some of your favorite pieces in the library?

It’s hard to choose, but my current favorite items in the collection are the 35mm slides I recently purchased on eBay. I have about 120 35mm slides that I collected from many places (libraries and universities mostly) that show works by Black artists. I have ones by so many greats, including Jacob Lawrence, Lorna Simpson, Charles Alston, Kerry James Marshall, John Outterbridge, James Van Der Zee, David Hammons, Aaron Douglas, Chris Ofili, and more!

While the library first existed as a pop-up and now as a MOCAD exhibition, you’re currently fundraising to acquire more books and a permanent location for the collection? How close are you to obtaining a brick-and-mortar space, and what do you envision as the library’s future?

I think I still may be about two years away from securing a space because the project still has a lot of foundational work to do. I’m not in a huge rush to be in a permanent space because I think there’s value in keeping the project mobile for the next few years. It can be seen in a few different spaces and allow for many people to see and engage with the project. I really want to make sure the community is familiar with the Black Art Library before I pop up with a permanent location, and I think being active throughout Detroit in different capacities will be the key to that.