Works by world-renowned artists installed on campus

Photo by Francisco Wang Yu
The art installation includes 670 handcrafted books highlighting the names of notable African-American poets, philosophers, and historians affected by the Great Migration.

The Alfond Contemporary Art Collection launched its new commissioned artwork, “The Great Migration: Poets, Philosophers and Historians” by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare on February 24. is posted on the second floor of Kathleen W. Rollins Hall (KWR).

The library curated by Shonibare “asks difficult questions and welcomes multiple answers from different viewpoints,” said Ena Heller, director of the Rollins Museum of Art.

The piece was gifted to Rollins by Ted (’68) and Barbara (’68) Alfond, art collectors and benefactors who personally selected Shonibare for the commission.

At the event, Alfond said that Shonibare’s commitment to literacy, communication, and diversity was an “influencing factor” in the Alfond Collection funding the piece.

The sculpture comprises 670 handcrafted hardback books wrapped in a printed cotton textile called Dutch wax or ankaraa nod to African history and a hallmark of Shonibare’s signature maximalist style.
The spine of each book is engraved with ornate gold foil lettering and highlights the name of a notable African-American poet, philosopher, or historian who was assigned to or participated in the Grand
Migration – a mass exodus of over 6 million African Americans who fled to northern cities
the southern Jim Crow. Names on the back of the installation include Langston Hughes, Angela Davis,
Ralph Ellison and Elizabeth Alexander.

Shonibare has created other iterations of the custom library that use different themes. However, each is an extension of its larger body of work“The American Library” (2018), an art installation of 6,000 book spines.

Dr. Matthew Nichter, associate professor of sociology, said commissioning and presenting the library was a combined effort between faculty, donors and many students. A team of student interns
several departments worked with Rollins’ faculty to provide background research for Shonibare. The library was then shipped in pieces to Rollins and assembled at KWR by a team of students and faculty.

According to Artis Gunn (’22), an English and history student, finding poets for the installation was an enriching way to learn about the story of the Great Migration and its “ripple effect” on the American literature.

Gunn cited author and poet Toni Morrison as a particularly notable figure and said her novels and poetry “demonstrate the importance of incorporating African-American history” into the classroom.

Sendy Sejourne (’23), who made Rollins history herself as the first black woman elected as the SGA’s Vice President, spoke about her role in deciding which philosophers to include in the collection.

“We’ve all heard of big names like Aristotle or Descartes,” Sejourne said. She said Shonibare’s article draws attention to names that have been overlooked, like philosopher Angela Davis.

Visitors can access an online catalog of digital index cards to learn more about the people featured on the spines of the books. Interested students can visit the second floor of the KWR to view the library and learn more about the place of the Great Migration in United States history.

Maria D. Ervin