«We’re definitely living through a moment where many are doing their best to include the people who have been traditionally left out of spaces and conversations. On one hand I am happy because this is necessary if we ever want to see forward movement, I’m especially speaking of the art world, but at the same time it shouldn’t have taken so long for us to get here.»Text by Tine Semb.

Detroit, MI and Oslo, Norway, January–February, 2021

I first read about Asmaa Walton and the Black Art Library (from now on BAL) at the online platform Hyperallergic, November 2020. Introducing that text is a black and white photo showing Asmaa sitting on the floor next to stacks of books and something less thick, perhaps brochures or folders. Apparently, this is not an unusual view in how she describes her surroundings the last year or so. She collects books and other items ‘suitable for a library’ about Black visual artists. And for those not already familiar with BAL: The project started as an account on Instagram, launched February last year. Since June 4 about 250 portraits of books — yes, portraits: art books handheld and beautifully presented against the walls of her apartment, occasionally with a living thing, such as a palm or succulent accompanying it — have been published almost every day and increasing as we speak.

Between the Instagram account and the library becoming real, covid-19 happened, and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations became an international movement, amplifying institutional unravelings as well as an aim for structural change.

The idea about a library making books and knowledge accessible, continued to grow. A pop-up project in Highland Park in Detroit last August resulted in the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) calling, offering her the space for a solo exhibition this spring. The museum writes: ‘A living archive of global Black creativity, the collection includes artist monographs, exhibition catalogs, children’s books, artist memoirs, artist biographies, art history texts, and other art related ephemera. As a mobile collection and interactive installation, Black Art Library provides a platform for community accessibility and engagement with the rich legacy of Black art, aesthetics, and history [that] encourage us to position Black art as accessible, real, and necessary.’

Asmaa is preparing the exhibition in between our talks, at about the same time as self-proclaimed Trump supporters infiltrated and attacked the U.S. Senate at Capitol Hill, and the virus is mutating around the globe. The exhibition has already been delayed, but hopefully opened weeks ago when you — the reader — is holding this publication in your hands.

From Black Art Library at Instagram. Above: We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985. A Sourcebook, catalogue from 2017, published by the Brooklyn Museum and Duke University Press (posted July 13, 2020).
So, who is Asmaa? Her dream was becoming a chef. Then she felt the education system was not creative enough and tried out athletic studies. Then accidentally trained to become an art teacher. Then Arts Politics sounded ‘right’.

Tine (T): A little background story, please?

Asmaa (A): From age 10 I knew I wanted to be a chef. I got to Chicago to study, I was there for six months, and I hated it. It was like pre-told how to do things; I didn’t feel able to really create. I was trying to let my interests guide me; started athletic training — not a very good match either — moved on to Textile Design which introduced me to the same pre-courses as Art Education. To become an art teacher, you have to know a little bit about everything! I truly liked it, and for a while it felt right, but I knew I wasn’t interested in being an art teacher in the traditional classroom-sense. The reason: I was one of the few students that didn’t grow up with art classes myself. Public schools in Detroit don’t have any visual arts classes, they don’t have budgets for it, so, there’s no painting, no ceramics, not anything in that realm. You do have performing art, drama, and music, but those are two separate worlds. So, while many of my classmates went in this direction based on their own experiences with great art teachers that had made a deep impact on them, to me, it was quite the opposite reason. Besides, I was the only Black student in my group, so that made me deal with a lot of things differently, simply because of our backgrounds.

— In addition, there are other issues involved: After you graduate you must do a teaching internship for one whole year, and it’s unpaid, which means you will be working full time without salary. “There must be something else I can do with a degree!?” The problem was I didn’t know what or how. And increase your education level can make it harder getting a job, because although you’re a better teacher that means they must pay you more, and schools don’t have that money. But I had already made up my mind and decided to go to grad school. I ended up finding a program at the New York University (NYU), an MA in Arts Politics. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded like something I should be doing.

Stacks of books. Photo by Asmaa Walton.
I started applying for museum jobs to learn more, but no one called me back. In itself that was quite discouraging, because museums are so hard to get into if you haven’t already worked in one ... So, how am I going to get experience from a museum if no museum is hiring me?
Photo by Asmaa Walton.

T: And?

A: And, I got in, which was rather surprising as NYU is a big deal — and ridiculously expensive, 60,000 USD a year— but it turned out they gave me a scholarship for a one-year program. Even if I was very nervous about going to New York — big city — it was quite obvious this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

T: It must have felt like a relief … I know that you have also been working a lot with archives at museums? (And I’ve also read you’ve been inspired by ‘collectors’ such as the Free Black Women’s Library for some time.) But, what happened next, between NYU and your own library?

A: I started applying for museum jobs to learn more, but no one called me back. In itself that was quite discouraging, because museums are so hard to get into if you haven’t already worked in one … So, how am I going to get experience from a museum if no museum is hiring me?

— Then the year had almost passed, and I needed a job to survive, so I found a three-month internship in the education department at the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio and I ended up getting it! And luckily it was just one hour away from Detroit, so I was closer to home. It was great! And this museum is actually founded on ideas about art education, which is kind if rare in an American context. For example, they run studio art classes, and have been doing that for the last 100 years or so. Those three months just flew by, and as I was one of the few interns that was actually done with school, it was possible to continue at the museum through a newly established fellowship, full-time. But this was for one year, so I had to have another opportunity lined up and continued doing another fellowship at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, a much more established one, so this was a great opportunity. And they actually flew me in for that interview … and although I was still figuring out my direction and asking myself a lot of questions. My mum told me: “You just go! Do the interview, see if you get it; you can always turn it down, and in any case, you’ve had a free trip to Saint Louis.” And I had never been there before.

Installing. Photo by Jova Lynne, MOCAD, 2021.
Museums have a lot of structural issues anyway, I was aware of that already, but it was different seeing it.

T: I know you got it …

A: I did. Then covid-19. And the research conferences in several states, among them on diversity, but of course everything shut down. Working at home felt rather odd, because essentially, I was in the house all the time … I had no friends or family there, no car, and in any case, you had to stay indoors, so I was just there … got groceries delivered, took that trash outside, but that’s it for three months. I remember the first time leaving the grounds of my apartment having to go to the post office by an Uber; it was the weirdest experience. Suddenly I didn’t know the procedures for being in a public space anymore. But a few weeks later, Saint Louis slowly opened up mid-June and I went back to the museum. However, simultaneously there was so much else going on here in the US [in particular Black Lives Matter demonstrations; Trump; the virus situation in general], in the world that was rather eye-opening observing how the different museums were responding. Museums have a lot of structural issues anyway, I was aware of that already, but it was different seeing it.

Zigzag patterns

T: Let’s jump ahead, a couple of months. You had started publishing images of books on Instagram. A bit later, Mia Imani Harrison, the writer of that article in the NY online art platform Hyperallergic, said she stumbled upon your work during her “daily ritual of researching Black artists and was amazed to find that so much literature about something I find so dear exists without the need for a library card.” And so the word spread … From an Instagram account to a physical archive, that started with a pop-up in September last year, is that right?

A: Yes. I was getting really fed up being inside the museum structure, it was just very draining. And while all this was going on, I had started thinking about the library more thoroughly, working on it for a few months, people had begun noticing it, even though I still didn’t know where I was going with it. And at the same time, I was at an interview for another fellowship, this time at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). This time I felt excited — it was home! It felt like a new opportunity, went on to another interview with the director, but a few weeks later the same person [Elysia Borowy-Reeder] was blasted virally for being racist, sexist after a signed petition by approximately 40 staff members — it was everywhere what was happening. She lost her job, and the museum had a lot of turbulence and change of staff caused as part of trying to ‘clean-up’.

And you can say that all this changed my mind working there.

— The idea to work on the library full-time seemed like a better and better idea, being able to focus on what I experienced as truly meaningful work, and probably more giving that what the museum job would have been. So even though I was sort of forced into the decision — it was in a good way. And here is the interesting and perhaps ironic part: After doing that pop-up event with the books, the same museum called me, offering me and the library a ten-week long exhibition, from February to April 2021, that would be not only open to the public, but with an additional digital side program. I mean, “how did that happen?!”

— Every day, the project grows. People reaching out to me, donating books, and inviting me to talk. Such as you. And museums want to learn from me … And of course, I love to do that — spread the word about this project. It’s been a whirlwind, and my path so far has been rather zigzagy. But all together, these things tell me that I have made some right decisions. Also, I am really excited to see what happens after the exhibition opens, how it develops. Two and a half months is a long time … so, let’s see what 2021 has in store for the Black Art Library. Suddenly, everything just makes sense … all very exciting and up crazy … and it means a lot to me that also my mom is excited with me, like “you are gonna have other opportunities than I had. Things have changed a tiny bit.”

Chase-Riboud, a catalogue from Barbara Chase­Riboud’s first solo exhibition in 1973 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum (posted 6 July, 2020). Photos by Asmaa Walton.

T: Let’s rewind for a moment. Your book collection. Being trapped between books in your flat. How does that work; home offices and an increasing storage of books.

A: Yea, I shift them around. My dad tells me I should get more space [to continue this work], because I live in a studio apartment and have like 300 books [as we write 400] in here … so, there’s literally nowhere to put them.

T: Gathering the material; you also receive massive amounts of donations? Books cost … and as already mentioned they demand some physical space, as opposed to a lot of other things these days, and they are heavy, too.

A: Actually, when I first started the project, I was just buying used books out of my own salary. 60 dollars could easily give me 10 books, which is a really good deal, especially considering these are art books. And I am being strategic, I make lists to keep track of which ones I am aware of but need to save money for. And April is when my birthday is …

T: — Mine, too!

A: April babies! So, when April comes, I post those lists, in case anyone wants to contribute with books instead of other gifts, and at the same time helping strengthen the library, a good cause … and people saw this and actually started to send me books, even tried to figure out methods for transporting larger amounts by using ethical methods. And someone sent me a large box of books to my home, with retail values in the 100’s of USD class, even 500–600 if you’re as lucky as to get your hands on it at all … I was like ‘wow! Are people really this invested in the project?’ It is touching. In addition, art galleries and publishers are supporting this, even from Europe.

— Also, it helped a lot when Kimberly Drew, former Social Media Manager at The Met and author of a great art book called Black Futures — she does a lot of amazing things; one day last summer she had posted on Instagram about the library. She has around 340 000 followers, which created a real boost and many new followers, which again laid the grounds for more talks, donations, and fundraising. So, my idea was to hopefully be able to cover the out-of-pocket costs that I had been paying myself, perhaps 3 000 USD to start with, but it kicked off … and I ended up raising around 10 000 USD rather fast. And that’s what I have been using to establish and organize the library the last approximately 6 months. For now, donations are what keeps the project going. So, the exhibition coming up now this spring is another step trying to gain more visibility and opportunities for grants, and step by step give the library a more solid structure.

— For the storage issues; well, everything has happened so quickly, but for a few months the books will be moved from my flat to the museum. I guess this is sort of how I live life … “everything will be fine. Somehow. I’ll figure it out.” Many smaller part time jobs, consulting assignments, donations — together it works. For now.

T: So, your goal is to just continue as long as this project feels meaningful, then.

A: Yes. 2021 will be an important year trying to take things a little further. I’m not in a rush for a physical space, rather I hope to travel with the project, that it can be seen in various places by different people. So, for now I am very happy that BAL exists as a sort of pop-up capacity. Besides: A physical space requires rent, and a staff, and a lot of different things. Long term an office would be nice, open for visitors with a reading room where it is possible to document the books, take pictures and copies. As some of the books are quite valuable, they could be available on site, so they don’t get lost.

T: I totally understand your consideration regarding resources, and that exposure is key. Real humans!

A: First of all, I want to make the material and these histories accessible. Creating a library that is open to a community, is really what I am interested in — for all ages, research purposes, but also all sorts of people, everyone. And I want people that perhaps have no idea or knowledge about art-related content; I want them to be comfortable coming into this space, that it’s not closed off. And ‘feeling comfortable’ is unfortunately not the most common state of body and mind when it comes to galleries or museums. Basically, you need an art degree — you have to know something — before even entering those spaces. And I kinda wanna break down that wall …

T: Then we are back at education again.

A: Yea, saying it is OK not knowing anything when you come here, and to be part and learn. I learn all along, too — so please come learn with me! And I believe everyone can appreciate and learn from art given an entrance. So, once again: “What do I want to gain by doing this?” My answer to that question is: Awareness. If you leave the library knowing the name of just one [Black] artist you didn’t know about when you came in, or just a little bit of something new, I’m extremely satisfied. And to me, being able to register that I am increasing my knowledge, for example by visiting a museum and be able to identify an artist without looking at the label; those things make me excited. I want to provide a setting for people to feel like that. 

Creating a library that is open to a community, is really what I am interested in — for all ages, research purposes, but also all sorts of people, everyone. And I want people that perhaps have no idea or knowledge about art-related content; I want them to be comfortable coming into this space, that it’s not closed off.
Pop-up library in Highland Park, Michigan, September 25–26, 2020. Photos courtesy of Asmaa Walton.
Screenshot from our online conversation. Our conversations were January 11 and January 13.

The gaps beyond books

At the moment the BAL contains more than 300 books, all about Black visual artists. Mostly books, but also other items. I also know that recently Asmaa came across an archive of Dias projection slides, an old teacher’s precious lecture database that count over 100 alone.

A: Libraries have all kinds of documents, so this is becoming more like an archive. I think whatever I can get my hands on that relates to Black visual arts, I’ll be happy to include. I got stamps, brochures, puzzles, DVDs, postcards, stickers, calendars, and a lot of art effects beyond books. — I am not quite sure how to display them in the upcoming exhibition yet, but I’m taking care of it. Many people will only be able to access it virtually due to restrictions or distances, so I want to make sure that I’m putting interesting content out there … 

— There are a lot that I miss, and books are still being created. I don’t think I will ever be short on material for the project. So, I think it is important to keep this ‘tunnel vision’ as there are so many archives on Black history and culture in general, but I want this to be very focused so people know what kind of material they can search for.

T: Since we are dealing with representation here (who’s seen and heard and included): The ongoing decolonising processes, both in culture and academia, society in general, how do you respond to that? E.g. establishing committees for diversity and representation et cetera. It seems pretty obvious that attempts doing changes at structural levels is way overdue, and in an ideal world, those issues wouldn’t be part of history at all, but it is … How do you respond to those attempts to ‘sudden change’ besides “it’s about time”?!

A: We’re definitely living through a moment where many are doing their best to include the people who have been traditionally left out of spaces and conversations. On one hand I am happy because this is necessary if we ever want to see forward movement, I’m specially speaking of the art world, but at the same time it shouldn’t have taken so long for us to get here. People are just beginning to find value in things that others have known were valuable for years. 

T: Earlier you also spoke about accessibility, and I’m just thinking that has just as much to do with ‘places’ to access and what is in those places.

A:This is a great point because even when thinking about public libraries for example. You can only find what books are already in those spaces because your local library might not have a book, but maybe a library a little further away does. If you can’t get to the other library, how will you access that information or that book? 

T: The problem of archives is everything that we do not know that exists, or existed, and might be destroyed, lost, never considered worthy or accepted being implemented in a collection at all. In other words: Hidden parts of history; lost material; neglected voices.

A: And as someone building an archive, I can only add things I find or things shared with me by others. I know there are so many parts and pieces that are long gone that will never make it into the library but it’s just how things are. 

T: Among all these books, cards …; I am curious; any particular finds that you want to highlight? Some favorites that you consider especially important, rare, radical, or different?

A: Recently I received my first piece of clothing for the collection. It is a T-shirt from artist William Pope. L’s The Black Factory. The Black Factory was a mobile art performance installation (2004) focused on what defines blackness. The artist toured to different states and collected items that represent blackness and added them to The Black Factory Archive (2004–ongoing). The T-shirts were worn by people assisting him on this tour.

— The 35mm slides of work by Black artists that I found on eBay are also one of my favorite things in the collection right now. They come from a lot of universities and libraries. A few of my slides even come from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

— My most recent purchase is also rather special. It’s a book entitled The Lost Zoo, written by Countee Cullen and illustrated by artist Charles Sebree. It’s a first edition from 1940. It may be the oldest book in the collection.

«Recently I received my first piece of clothing for the collection [...]: A T­-shirt from artist William Pope. L’s The Black Factory. [It] was a mobile art performance installation (2004) focused on what defines blackness.» Photo by Asmaa Walton, 2021.