Interviews

Black Feminist Literature at the NY Art Book Fair: An Interview with the Free Black Women’s Library

Artist and librarian OlaRonke Akinmowo has collected over 1,000 books written by Black women to assemble the interactive biblio installation.

The Free Black Women’s Library display at the NY Art Book Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

OlaRonke Akinmowo is the artist, scholar, and librarian behind the Free Black Women’s Library (TFBWL), a mobile and interactive installation committed to sharing literature by Black women authors across genres, and cultivating new conversations about accessibility, representation, and bibliophilia.

I met Akinmowo at the NY Art Book Fair, where the Free Black Women’s Library is participating in a project space hosted by 3 Dot Zine, to talk about the library, her Black feminist inspirations, and the significance of literary representation.

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TFBWL’s signage made by OlaRonke Akinmowo, a printmaker

Jasmine Weber: What inspired you and catalyzed the actual move to formulate this library?

OlaRonke Akinmowo: A couple of different things — one of them being that I really love books and I really love to read. I wanted to do a social art project where books were the theme, and I also wanted to do something that centered Black women and explored the idea of how Black women are so different, and how Black women are so creative, and imaginative, and talented, and diverse. I had gotten frustrated with seeing news stories on Black women that were coming from a pessimistic viewpoint, and a very sad viewpoint. I wanted to do something that explored our realities from a different standpoint: a place where we’re more empowered, and where it’s not people talking about us, but it’s us talking about ourselves. Where the voice is our voice.

I’ve been in a lot of book clubs and I’ve seen how books can be such an awesome foundation for deeper conversation. That’s a part of it. You can be talking about Tayari Jones’ book An American Marriagea super popular, bestselling book, award-winning book — and having that conversation can take you to a whole other place where you’re talking about the prison industrial complex and how racism affects romance. It’s like these books are giving you a platform for really deep conversation and really deep analysis.

Another inspiration was being born in Brooklyn, and really loving Brooklyn and wanting to do a Brooklyn-based project where the community can come together. I really like social art projects that are intergenerational, so it was really important for me to have a space for children, as well as a space for elders and everybody in-between, that’s free so people feel like they can have access to it.

I’ve always loved libraries. Even when I was a little girl, being in the library all day was one of my favorite things. The library is one of the few institutions that actually makes sense, as far as it being a resource and a space for people. A free public space.

When I first started it, I collected 100 books and realized that that wasn’t enough because there’s so much more. Now that I’m at 1,000, I’m feeling like I’m at a good amount of books, and I have books that cover a spectrum of all different interests — fashion, health, spirituality, haircare, architecture, engineering. Everything is there, so I feel like whoever comes will find something to keep them open.

A small portion of the library’s extensive selection

JW: Do you have a permanent installation space?

OA: Right now the library is solely through pop-ups. I install the library in a different location every month. Its usually in a public space and it’s there at minimum for an entire day … at maximum, it could be there for a month. It was up for six weeks in an art gallery in Bushwick.

Right now I’m focused on raising money for a vehicle that will be a bookmobile, which can serve as the library’s location, transportation, and storage space.

JW: Does the Free Black Women’s Library operate in the traditional library format, by taking a book on the promise of return, or does it operate a little differently?

OA: When it first started out it was a trading library. I wanted to keep a certain amount of books in the library at all times, so the way it worked was that for every book you bring, you get to take one. So people would show up with two or three books, and they’d get to take two or three books — as long as it was by a Black woman author, we could trade. It didn’t matter what the subject was. But now I have over 1,000 books, so I actually am able to give books away. If people want to bring them back they can, but they can also keep them.

Akinmowo’s artistic sensibilities hybridize library and installation

JW: Do you have a favorite author in particular or a favorite book in the collection?

OA: It’s hard to just pick one. I have a list of favorites depending on the genre and depending on my mood, and who I’m talking to. Usually, people come to the library and they might be looking for something lighthearted, and then I’ll have a favorite, or they’re looking for something more serious, and then I’ll have a favorite, so it’s hard to say. Parable of the Sower is one of my favorite books — that’s Octavia Butler — and then Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde is another favorite. Assata Shakur’s memoir, Assata, that’s a favorite. Those are three books that I’m always like, “If you haven’t read these books and you like to read, read these.” Those are the first things that usually come to mind, and then if we take it further, if someones really into poetry, I’ll talk about Lucille Clifton, or Rita Dove. If someone is into plays, I’ll mention Ntozake Shange’s book For Colored Girls.

JW: Are there any books you wish you had in the library but don’t have?

OA: That’s a really good question. I definitely have a wishlist of books. I’d say anything that’s kind of award-winning, best-selling. I really love this book by Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] called this The Thing Around Your Neck. That book I don’t have in the collection, but I’d love to have that one. I kind of wish I had more African authors in general, and more Caribbean authors, because I definitely want to stress the fact that Blackness is global. I have a lot of authors who are from America who are Black women, but I would love to have women from the Caribbean, women from Germany, women from France, women from South America, women from all throughout the continent [Africa]. I’d love to have more of those authors, like Buchi [Emecheta], Mariama Bâ, these different women who have written really excellent work, but they’re not really talked about in [the United States].

A selection of Akinmowo’s original artwork available at the fair

JW: What was the most difficult addition to the collection? A book you’d been coveting and had trouble finding.

OA: My personal interest is in Black feminist books, mainly nonfiction — so Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Michele Wallace, writers like that. I love that stuff, and I also really love science fiction, so I love Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemison … I’m always looking to have those books in the collection, in multiple copies, different texts. I also noticed that the young adult books are very popular because parents are often looking for books that their children can read where they’ll feel connected to the characters and feel like they’re being represented in a way that’s really creative and fun. I’m always open to more YA, more children’s, especially more contemporary stuff, because the older stuff tends to be really heavy and really tragic. Even though it’s very well written, and the stories are children’s and young adults, the storylines have a lot of adult content. But I’m pretty open, actually.

I really appreciate people being intentional about what they bring. There are people who bring books and they’re like, “Oh! I really love this book, and I feel like everyone should read it, so I want to make sure you have it in your collection.” Then I have authors who hear about the library and they’ll mail me their books because they want to make sure people have access to them, so I appreciate those folks that come through.

I definitely have a preference for stuff that’s a little more new, stuff that can kind of reach a more contemporary, younger audience … and then classics like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, June Jordan, all those folks. I’m all over the place, so it’s kind of a hard question to answer. I just feel like all books are awesome — well, most books are awesome.

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The Free Black Women’s Library is participating in the 2018 NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 as part of 3 Dot Zine’s “Welcome, A Space” through September 23. Akinmowo invites participants to visit the project space and trade a book. Learn about other NY Art Book Fair events and projects spaces on their website.

You can support the Free Black Women’s Library by subscribing to their Patreon, where Akinmowo posts book recommendations, reviews, and other information about Black literature and feminism. You can also follow them on Tumblr.

The Free Black Women’s Library September pop-up will take place in the courtyard of the Bed-Stuy YMCA on Sunday, September 30, where they will host a discussion about Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Akinmowo is also leading a series of workshops on the writing and life of Audre Lorde, sponsored by Humanities NY. The first workshop will be September 29 at Wendy’s Subway.

Akinmowo recently finished an artist residency at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Shop. She will show her work for the first time at the Offit Gallery at 525 W 120th St, New York, NY 10027. The show opens October 4.

This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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