The American Library: Highlighting the Immigrant Experience through Art

Front. An American City. Eleven Cultural Exercises.

Yinka Shonibare's past work shown in a photograph of many books on bookshelves spanning multiple rooms.

© Phoebe D’Heurle; Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery, New York

The British Library, 2014
Hardback books, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, gold foiled names, five wooden chairs, five iPads, iPad stands, headphones, interactive Application and antique wind-up clock


At first glance, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, tennis pro Anna Kournikova, guitarist Carlos Santana, and First Lady Melania Trump couldn’t be more different. Even so, they are connected by a single shared factor: they’re all immigrants.

This summer, a special art exhibit in Cleveland Public Library’s Brett Hall will highlight the American immigrant experience. The American Library, an installation created by artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA), will feature thousands of books wrapped in African wax cloth, their spines emblazoned with the names of first- or second-generation U.S. immigrants and African Americans affected by the Great Migration from the American South. Artists, athletes, scientists, musicians, writers, physicians, inventors, architects, and other cultural icons—some famous, some not, but all a part of the American immigration story—will be represented in this exhibit.

“The work is archival in its content and is essentially about mining the stories of immigrants to the United States from across the globe,” Shonibare explained via email. “I think a library is an apt setting for this work.”

Portrait of Yinka Shonibare

Image credit: Marcus Leith
©Royal Academy of Arts, London

Shonibare’s installation is just one part of the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art’s larger An American City program. This project, which will span a range of art exhibitions located at major cultural centers throughout Greater Cleveland, opens July 14 and runs through September 30. The Library will join the Cleveland Museum of Art, Transformer Station, SPACES, Playhouse Square, Akron Art Museum, West Side Market, and many other regional cultural institutions in displaying art exhibitions as part of FRONT International.

“Art has been part of the library experience here at Cleveland Public Library since day one,” explains Aaron Mason, Assistant Director of Outreach and Program Services at Cleveland Public Library. “We have an endowment for public art and a long history in investing in art and exposing our patrons to it, from world-class illustrations in children’s books to music and performance art and more. So the content of the FRONT exhibition speaks to our strategic priorities.”

The American Library’s potential to bolster community engagement and initiate conversation surrounding a timely topic, as well as providing the opportunity to showcase Shonibare, a significant international artist, further aligns with the Library’s mission.

An Interactive Experience

Shonibare, a London-born artist who grew up in the United Kingdom and Nigeria, is known for his work addressing cultural identity, colonialism, race, class, and the economic and political complexities in relationships between African and European nations. He was awarded the decoration of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2004 and nominated as a Royal Academician (RA) in 2013. Shonibare lives in the United Kingdom and conceived of The American Library as a sequel to his 2014 The British Library installation, which honored U.K. immigrants.

The American Library will be installed in Brett Hall as a large, open bookcase containing thousands of books inscribed with immigrant names. Like Shonibare’s original British installation, The American Library will include an interactive element. Visitors in Brett Hall can scroll through the exhibit’s tablets to read about the immigrant names in greater detail, while other viewers located anywhere in the country can access an accompanying website to learn about the exhibit or submit their own immigration stories.

“We want this exhibit to have a longer reach, to allow all Americans to share their immigration stories,” says Caitie Moore, Project Manager at FRONT International. “That means sharing our pasts and thinking about our own families and origins, which gives the exhibit an introspective angle. Instead of just showcasing famous people, we’re going to ask, ‘What’s your story?’ In this way, it’s more of a conversation.”

Those who wish to document their experiences or family histories surrounding immigration should visit the FRONT International website at this summer to locate the exhibit site. Interested visitors may also share their stories on social media by tagging posts with #FRONTArt2018. This interactive element is imperative to both Shonibare’s installation and the larger An American City exhibition— as Moore says, it’s all part of the conversation that will play out on a broader scale throughout Cleveland.

“FRONT is more than a single exhibit in a single museum,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to have different pieces of artwork reference each other. It’s not something you see once and it’s over. It’s ongoing, and it’s more of a reflection. This is a project that breaks down barriers and invites everyone to take part and enjoy contemporary art.”

The Research

While Shonibare’s studio made the final decisions regarding the installation’s list of immigrants, Cleveland Public Library staff played a significant role in researching and suggesting many of the names that will appear in The American Library.

Based on Shonibare’s specifications, dozens of Library employees produced thousands of names of American immigrants who represent a diverse range of professions, countries of origin, genders, races, sexual orientations, and more. Library staff were also sure to include some Cleveland immigrants, including politician George Voinovich, Superman co-creator Joe Shuster, Cleveland Orchestra harpist Carmela Cafarelli, comic book author Harvey Pekar, restauranteur Maria De La Luz Galindo, and Myra Merrick, the first female physician in Ohio, among others.

Mark Tidrick, who currently works as a Library AssistantComputer Emphasis at Collinwood Branch, helped coordinate the Library’s role in this research. He managed incoming immigrant name suggestions, checked sources, and used the Library’s collections whenever possible to verify research.

“Considering our current political climate, this is an important exhibit,” Tidrick says. “I think it will be stunning, and it really has the potential to draw a lot of people to the Library.”

The Immigration Debate

Lastly, the books in The American Library will feature not only the names of immigrants, but also some notable dissenters within the immigration debate. For example, conservative political commentator Laura Ingraham, who is known for her stance against immigration, and Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt and then pardoned by President Trump in 2017 for violating a federal court order to stop racially profiling Latinos, are just two names of immigration dissenters included in the exhibit.

“It all comes back to the issue of conversation,” Moore explains.

“You can’t have a dialogue with just one side represented. And so dissenters are included, too.”

“It’s a debate, and it’s going to remain a complex issue for a long time,” Mason adds of immigration. “While there might not be any easy answers, we do know one thing: isolated cultures die.

We need an influx of people with new experiences and skillsets to help society thrive.”

As the creator of The American Library, Shonibare describes his installation as a piece that encourages empathy while addressing a critical subject in America’s current political and social landscape.

“I hope the Cleveland residents find the work relevant to their own history and the lives of people they know,” Shonibare says.

“I hope The American Library will make a significant contribution towards raising important issues of our time.”

Read More:

FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art