Detroit native Asmaa Walton says she has long felt like Black art was missing from her life. She didn't have many visual arts classes to choose from growing up in Detroit's public schools. Even when she was in undergrad at Michigan State University, "there wasn't a lot of Black art being taught in my art history courses, or even just hearing about it kind of in my art classes," she says. "So a lot of the learning that I had to do was kind of on my own, through Google and the internet."
After she graduated and started working in art museums in Toledo and Saint Louis, she noticed that Black people weren't visiting the museums at the rates that white people were. Inspired by her experiences as a Black woman in the art world, Walton began collecting books about Black art. Last February she founded what she calls the Black Art Library, and started featuring them on her Instagram page, @blackartlibrary.
"I didn't know where I was going with it, but I knew I wanted to do it," she says. "I knew I wanted to build some type of resource that could be used for art education centered around Black artists."
The books came from wherever Walton could find them: new, used from eBay, or donations. "A nice chunk of the library's collection is donations from a lot of different people from everywhere," she says. "I had a guy who sent me two huge boxes of books from his personal collection," she says. "A lot of people are like, 'Well, you know, it just kind of sits up on the shelf, and this seems like a better place for it."
The collection includes exhibition catalogs, biographies about Black artists, children's books, and more. In August, Walton featured her growing collection at the 48 HR Complex in Highland Park for a weekend pop-up. "It was just for a weekend, and people came in, they grabbed some books, sat down, read," she says. "There was an area outside, they just found somewhere and enjoyed reading and looking at some pictures."
Her collection has grown since then — Walton says she now has nearly 300 books. They'll be featured as part of a larger exhibition opening next month at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
Similarly, she says the Black Art Library will be set up as a reading room with shelves and seating areas. "People can come in and grab a book off the shelf and look through it," she says. "The books are art, but they're not in that sense where they're too precious to be touched, because I think that defeats the whole purpose of the project."
As part of the exhibition, Walton is also working on an initiative called 100 Books, 100 Homes, where local youths can sign up to receive books. She says she's still hammering out the details.
"I just want to put it out there so, hopefully, maybe someone will see it," she says of her collection. "You never know who the right person is. They might come across something and you never know what it'll do for them."
She adds, "If they leave and know the name of one more artist than they did when they came, I'll be satisfied."
The Black Art Library opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622; mocadetroit.org. The exhibition runs from Feb. 5-April 18.
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