The British Library

The British Library’ by Yinka Shonibare MBE is a celebration of diversity. This presentation has transformed James Cohan Gallery in New York into a place of discovery and debate. It consists of an installation of thousands of books covered in the artist’s signature batik Dutch wax printed cotton textile. On the spines of many of these books are printed the names of notable first and second generation immigrants and incoming migrants to Britain who have moved here throughout history. These names include Winston Churchill, Prince Philip and Dame Helen Mirren. These immigrants and incoming migrants have all made a significant contribution to aspects of British life and culture, from science to music, art, cinema and literature. Other books feature names of prominent figures who have opposed immigration at various times. The installation also includes tablets through which you can learn more about the people named on the books and watch videos looking at the immigration debate from pro-immigration, anti-immigration and neutral viewpoints. The space gives a voice to both those who have objected to British immigration and those 'foreigners' who have made a valuable contribution to the nation’s history.

Examples of the reasons for immigration can vary from global conflicts to economic factors. Whilst the project is a celebration of the ongoing contributions made to British society by people who have arrived there from other parts of the world or whose ancestors came to Britain as immigrants, it does not exclude the points of view of those who object to it. ‘The British Library' is inspired by the current debates about immigration.

This work was originally commissioned by HOUSE 2014 and Brighton Festival and shown at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, UK in 2014. The material on the tablets has been updated since its original exhibition to include more up to date conversations about immigration. For this installation in North America, the website has been updated to include a history of immigration in the United States, information about what drives refugees to leave their home countries and what it is like for them to settle in a new one, and conversations both pro and con about whether the US is a country that welcomes immigrants or doesn’t. You are also now able to access this information on your smart phone whilst you are at the exhibition, or from any computer in your own time. 

Artist's Biography

Yinka Shonibare MBE was born in 1962 in London and moved to Lagos, Nigeria at the age of three. He returned to London to study Fine Art, first at Central Saint Martins College and then at Goldsmiths College, where he received his MFA.

Shonibare’s work explores issues of race and class through the media of painting, sculpture, photography and film, and questions the meaning of cultural and national definitions. His trademark material is the brightly coloured ‘African’ batik fabric he buys in London. This type of fabric was inspired by Indonesian design, mass-produced by the Dutch and eventually sold to the colonies in West Africa. In the 1960s the material became a new sign of African identity and independence.

Shonibare was a Turner prize nominee in 2004, and was also awarded the decoration of Member of the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” or MBE, a title he has added to his professional name. Shonibare was notably commissioned by Okwui Enwezor at Documenta 11, Kassel in 2002 to create his most recognised work ‘Gallantry and Criminal Conversation’ that launched him on to an international stage.  He has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and internationally at leading museums. In September 2008, his major mid-career survey commenced at the MCA Sydney and then toured to the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. He was elected as a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy, London in 2013.

Shonibare’s work, ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was the 2010 Fourth Plinth Commission, and was displayed in Trafalgar Square, London, until January 2012. It was the first commission by a black British artist and was part of a national fundraising campaign organized by the Art Fund and the National Maritime Museum, who have now successfully acquired the sculpture for permanent display outside the museum's new entrance in Greenwich Park, London.

In 2012, the Royal Opera House, London, commissioned ‘Globe Head Ballerina’ (2012) to be displayed on the exterior of the Royal Opera House, overlooking Russell Street in Covent Garden. The life-sized ballerina encased within a giant ‘snow globe’ spins slowly as if caught mid-dance, the piece appears to encapsulate a moment of performance as if stolen from the stage of the Royal Opera House.

In 2014, Doughty Hanson & Co Real Estate and Terrace Hill, commissioned ‘Wind Sculpture’ and it is installed in Wilcox Place, London. Measuring 6 metres by 3 metres, it explores the notion of harnessing movement through the idea of capturing and freezing a volume of wind in a moment in time.

Shonibare’s works are included in prominent collections internationally, including the Tate Collection, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and VandenBroek Foundation, The Netherlands.