Children’s Book Authors in Yinka Shonibare’s American Library

Last weekend I attended the preview for FRONT International, the first Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.  I can’t claim to have taken in all eleven cultural exercises, which translates into 110 artists showing in twenty-eight venues across the city from the emerging Hingetown district in Ohio City to Gordon Square arts district, from the Cleveland Museum in the elegant University Circle area to the Akron and Allen museums outside the metropolitan area..

The first installation my husband and I had to see was Yinka Shonibare’sThe American Library, in the downtown branch of the Cleveland Public Library, a beautiful historical building on Superior Avenue, which FRONT commissioned. It was perfectly appropriate that librarians of the “People’s University” at Cleveland Public were involved in the creation of this new work.  It is designed as two monumental back-to-back rows of book stacks, which contain some 6,000 books bound in myriad patterns of colorful batik fabrics.  Their spines are stamped in gold with the names of first- or second-generation immigrants to America who have influenced their adopted country’s culture.  It is a counterpart to Shonibare’s British Library, which was unveiled in 2014 at the British Library.  The American Library is installed in Brett Hall, shown below open for business as usual and as transformed for  FRONT this summer.Shonibare has not designed a labyrinth that stores, arranges, and conceals knowledge like the Aedificium in The Name of the Rose.  His open book stacks are meant to be freely browsed by any visitor. Even though the books here cannot be taken off the shelves and read (I assume they are all blank inside), the quiet process of skimming the names on the spines encourages discovery of those people represented in the library’s collection.  We spotted musicians, writers, movie stars, inventors, athletes, businessmen, and public figures (I would have given Mitch McConnell a pass).   We didn’t (but could have) whipped out our smartphones and Googled intriguing names we didn’t recognize.  The American Library has a dedicated site where you may  leave your stories of emigration.Were children’s book writers and illustrators represented here?  I discovered two…  The first was Ohio-born Lois Lenski.

Her series about children across America, which I remember borrowing from the public library over and over again, made me uncomfortably conscious of living in a very different time and place they had.  I’m not sure I felt as lucky as guilty.The second author I found was Peter Sis, an emigrant from Prague, Czechoslovakia, whose illustrations remain within the creative arc of Eastern Europe and continue the  cross-fertilization of the American children’s picture book by European-trained artists..

I immediately thought of his picture book Madelenka, where his daughter goes around the world when she tells all the neighbors on her block that she’s lost a tooth.  It’s a twenty-first century to urban diversity by an emigrant who has made New York his home.Sis, like Shonibare, understands that a library’s welcoming yet mysterious stacks holds out to any reader who  desires for knowledge the right to search for it.  It’s a gesture that we tend to take for granted in the Internet Age.  But when the power goes down, the stacks are still open.  Thanks to the enlightened organizers of FRONT for paying tribute to an institution that is foundational to American liberty.