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World-renowned artist’s work installed on campus

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

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

Shonibare’s curated bookcase “asks difficult questions and welcomes multiple answers from different perspectives,” 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 “influential factor” in The Alfond Collection’s funding of the piece.

The sculpture features 670 handcrafted hardback books wrapped in a printed cotton textile called Dutch wax or ankara, a nod to African history and a hallmark of Shonibare’s signature maximalist style.
The spine of each book is etched with ornate gold foil lettering and highlights the name of a notable African American poet, philosopher, or historian who was affected by or a participant in the Great
Migration—a mass exodus of over 6 million African Americans who fled to northern cities from
the Jim Crow south. Names on the installation’s spines include Langston Hughes, Angela Davis,
Ralph Ellison, and Elizabeth Alexander.

Shonibare has created other iterations of the customized bookcase that employ different themes. However, each are extensions of his larger body of work, “The American Library” (2018), an art installation of 6,000 book spines.

Dr. Matthew Nichter, associate professor of Sociology, said the commission and presentation of the bookcase was a combined effort between faculty, donors, and many students. A team of student interns
from multiple departments worked with Rollins faculty to provide background research for Shonibare. The bookcase was then shipped in pieces to Rollins and assembled in KWR by a team of students and faculty.

According to Artis Gunn (‘22), English and History major, researching poets for the installation was a rewarding way to learn more about the history of the Great Migration and its “ripple effect” on American literature.

Gunn cited author and poet Toni Morrison as a particularly noteworthy figure and said her novels and poetry “speak to the importance of incorporating African American history” in the classroom.

Sendy Sejourne (‘23), who made Rollins history herself as the first Black woman elected as SGA vice president, spoke about her role in choosing philosophers to include in the collection.

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

Visitors can access a digital card catalog online to learn more about the individuals featured on the book spines. Interested students can visit the second floor of KWR to see the bookcase and learn more about the Great Migration’s place in US history.

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