After realizing that arts education in the United States was not only failing the Black communities today but the conservation of Black histories, Detroit native Asmaa Walton sought to create an alternative education. Black Art Library started as a Black History Month experiment where Walton would post the covers of anthologies, art books, exhibition catalogues, and monographs from Black visual culture. As more people began to follow the page and show interest in her hobby, Walton began to expand the scope of the project. I stumbled upon the page when I was doing my 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.
The Black Art Library is more than a nod to the Field of Dreams “if you build it, they will come” cliché. People within and outside of the Black community are contributing to preserving the history of Black visual aesthetics. This preservation is increasingly crucial as Black cultural contributions are frequently limited to the immaterial products we produce, such as music and dance. As Arthur Jafa outlines, the more ‘material’ fields like architecture, painting, and sculpture have historically made it difficult for Black folx to occupy.
In the interview below, I talk to Walton about her project and the importance of art education and decolonial archive projects.
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Hyperallergic: How did the Black Art Library project come into fruition?
Asmaa Walton: I had the idea for the Black Art Library maybe at the end of 2019. I didn’t really know what it would be, but I really wanted to create a resource for our education. I wanted Black people to be able to use this resource and find an interest in art, or to do research, or just sit down and learn some things they might have already known but learn some new information about it. And I was just like, I’m just going to start collecting the books to see what happens. I started collecting books and I made an Instagram account for it. Over time, people actually got really interested in it. I started to shift my view that maybe this needs to be a physical location. I started to formulate a plan to make this a real space that people can come and enjoy.
H: I know that you received your master’s in Arts Politics from NYU (Tisch) and your undergrad was at Michigan State University in art education. How did those educational experiences influence your concept of art education and your relationship to cultural institutions overall as a Black womxn?
AW: One thing that was pretty big for me in shaping how I think about education is accessibility to education. I was the only Black woman in my cohort, also just the only Black person in general. The cohort was pretty small, maybe about 15 of us. I would hear how my classmates came to the decision that they wanted to teach art education. They had this really great art teacher. They would talk about their experiences with art in school. I didn’t have art throughout school. I did in maybe kindergarten/first grade and that was it, as far as visual arts go. I was so surprised that all of them had actually had art throughout their whole school careers. Most of them were from Michigan, but not from Detroit or any of the suburbs of Detroit.
That made me think. Do I even want to be an art teacher in a classroom? Because I’m probably not going to be teaching the student demographic that I’m interested in teaching. Which are Black students. Preferably, students in Detroit. I was thinking I’m not even going to have an opportunity to do that because there are no art teachers. There are no art classes for me to even teach in. That just means I’m probably going to have to teach out in the suburbs somewhere. That got my mind thinking that there were other ways that you could do education.
H: In what ways did your fellowships (Romare Bearden, Toledo Museum of Art KeyBank Museum) influence or expand your concept of art education and programming?
AW: I’ve gotten to see how educational programming can be done. How you can center certain artists and certain stories. At the Toledo Museum of Art, I got to see a lot of that because it is an institution that was founded on education. At the St. Louis Art Museum, I got to see things at a larger scale. I also got to see how they did outreach to the community –– every year they do a Martin Luther King program and a Kwanzaa program.
I was lucky to work at two free institutions, which I feel is kind of rare. Working in museums made me feel like I wanted to create my own thing because there are a lot of politics that actually fall into work at a museum. We got to see a lot of that in the past few months with things that were happening in response to police brutality, the riots, and the murders of Black people. I think institutions kind of realized that they couldn’t just tiptoe around those situations or report talking about them. You got to see the internal workings of museums and how they really function.
H: What other influences or inspirations contributed to you building the Black Art Library? Were there any models you followed?
AW: One really big primary inspiration was the Schomburg in New York. I never got a chance to go, although I was in New York at that time. It just went by so fast. But knowing what the place actually is, that it centered around Black stories and Black history, was really inspiring. We need something like that in Detroit. We need some kind of space like that. Detroit is the Blackest city in the US. It’s an 80% Black city. There’s a lot of Black history here, there should be some private space like that. That was one way I started to think about it. I also was inspired by the Free Black Women’s Library. I was inspired by what they do, even though I knew what I was doing would look different. I was really inspired by how people were drawn to it and how they really enjoyed doing it.
H: What is the project like behind the scenes? How are you able to catalogue, source, and protect the materials?
AW: When I first started, I was still living in St. Louis and I was collecting books in my apartment in stacks on the floor because I didn’t have a bookshelf or anything. It got to a point when I think I was almost at 100 books. I had to take a pause, but it’s something that I’m always doing. I’m always trying to find new books because I don’t know what else is out there.
When I moved back to Detroit, I had to start cataloging these in some kind of way because I didn’t want to look up and have 500 books and no records. I ended up finding this app called Books that allows you to catalog your home library. You scan the picture of the barcode on the back and input all the information for it. You can add additional notes in there, so I started to add who donated because I want to be able to credit the people who have contributed to the library. It’s a community thing. The donations that I received I would not be able to find on my own or be able to afford.
H: Have you found the donations are mostly people you know, or are you also getting them from strangers, earnest collectors?
AW: Most of them are actually coming from strangers. Sometimes I would get books and people didn’t even leave their name. Eventually, I got introduced to other people who were following the project. I was invited to speak at a few virtual meetings. That way, I was meeting a lot of people. I was talking to a lot of people that were in the arts.
H: It’s so nice that the community has come out in different ways. You recently had a pop-up at 48HR Complex in Highland Park Michigan where they allowed you to use their space. What did you feature at the event?
AW: This project really makes these books more accessible to people. I have some really rare books, old brochures and pamphlets. I had one table that just had all of my rare books so you could look at them. I made a note that said these are rare books in the collection. So be careful with them. I posted one of the books and somebody was like, “You let people touch those?” Well, yeah. If they can’t open them, they can’t read and get the information. I just want to let people know that these books are rare. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. People understand what that means. That’s really all I care about. Over time, some books can’t be handled this much because our hands do have oil on them that will break things down over time. That is something that I will have to be considering as well. Right now, I just want people to enjoy the books any way that they can. It was exciting because that was my first in-person experience showing the books.
H: As alternative archives are being given more attention and respect within academia and beyond, how do you imagine the future of the Black Art Library and other decolonial archive projects?
AW: Well, I really just hope that they make something new — that there are new hybrid places that aren’t centered around the colonial aspect of education and academia. It’s exciting to see all of these new Instagram pages that are of different archival projects. There’s so much history that we just don’t really know about and we don’t really know how to find information for it. I want to see more of these kinds of archives, the kind of libraries that are really utilized by the communities that they’re represented.
H: I know that you have mentioned having a physical location in the future. What are your other future goals or dream collaborations you would like to have with this project?
AW: I definitely want to collaborate with local institutions. I want to collaborate with some Detroit public schools. I really just want this project to be visible to the community. So that when I do eventually have my own physical space they’re familiar with it already, and they’re more open to coming in and spending some time there because a lot of people reportedly are really intimidated by art-related things. I want people to be comfortable with the space.