Image Courtesy of Asmaa Walton


Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens and Black Art Library Founder Asmaa Walton

on Resource Sharing, Communal Action, and More

Published Thursday, Feb 2, 2023

Kristen Owens, whose interdisciplinary research, writing, and curatorial work is situated in African American and Black diasporic studies, is the Librarian for African American and Black Diaspora Studies at New York University Libraries and the inaugural Wikimedia Fellow with Pace. Her research in the Wikimedia Fellowship—which was established in 2022 as part of an ongoing partnership between the gallery and Black Lunch Table, a nonprofit organization working to build a comprehensive and robust digital archive of Black artists’ stories—has been grounded by the late scholar Carolyn Fowler’s 1981 book Black Arts and Black Aesthetics: A Bibliography and a recent essay on Fowler’s work by Howard Rambsy II, a professor of literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Inspired by histories of communal resource sharing, Owens has composed a new, public-facing bibliography for Black arts and aesthetics. She has also assembled a special selection of publications focused on Black art and visual culture in Pace’s library at 540 West 25th Street in New York. Titled [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, this presentation, which functions as a reading room, continues through February 25, 2023.

To mark the opening of [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, Owens spoke with arts educator Asmaa Walton, who established the nonprofit Black Art Library in 2020. To learn more about the Black Art Library, please visit (opens in a new window) @blackartlibrary on Instagram.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

Kristen Owens: What is the Black Art Library and how did it come to be?

Asmaa Walton: Whenever I explain what the Black Art Library is, I never know where to begin. When I first started it, it was kind of a hobby. I was testing something out. I started the project in 2020, but in 2018—on my personal Instagram account—I was posting new Black artists every day of February, just to educate my peers. That was 2018, and I had 28 artists that I shared on my personal Instagram who I had just learned about myself. I was just trying to share information.

The next year, I decided to make a different Instagram to do this. In my mind, something was brewing about what I wanted to do, though I wasn’t sure what. The account didn’t have that many followers—it was like 60 people, but, hey, those are 60 people who are engaged in the content that I’m putting out there. I did that in February 2019.

When February was approaching again in 2020, I wanted to figure out how to create a resource for people to learn about Black artists. In the few years prior, I had been learning about Black artists on my own, so I thought that if I could gather books and information, it could be an easier way for somebody else to attain this knowledge.

So, I decided to start collecting art books—I didn’t have a huge collection of them, but I had asked my friends to buy me art books for my birthday one year and I had a few that I bought myself. I decided to start building a resource and sharing the books that I had, just showing pictures of them on the Instagram account I had used to share artists during Black History Month in 2019. I didn’t know how people would actually utilize that, but I had decided to just start doing it.

I had been learning about Black artists on my own, so I thought that if I could gather books and information, it could be an easier way for somebody else to attain this knowledge.

Asmaa Walton

Then I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to start buying books.’ The first one I purchased for the collection was the catalogue for Beauford Delaney’s retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1978. I was super excited to have found that, and that was when it clicked for me—it was exciting to be able to find a book and have it in my hands. I was energized from that point on, and I just kept it going, posting pictures of the books I buy so people can see and keep up with what I’m doing.

From there it became its own thing. This was obviously one month before the world shut down. At the time I was a fellow at the St. Louis Art Museum, but I was working completely home until June, just buying more books during that time. That summer, I ended up doing a talk with Niama Safia Sandy—she was doing a series of video conversations with four women, including me and Ola [Akinmowo], founder and director of the Free Black Women’s Library. It was really encouraging for me, especially talking to Ola because I was inspired by what she was doing. My idea was different but still kind of linked. So, it was just really encouraging having those three Black women tell me, ‘You can do this. You should do more. You need to be asking for donations.’

I started a GoFundMe, and within a few months I ended up raising about $12,000. That carried me for a year or so in building the collection. That was nice because I had started by buying the books out of pocket. I did my first pop-up in Detroit at a house that this artist named Tony Rave bought—the house still needed to be renovated, but he said he wanted it to be an artists’ hub. I hadn’t really thought about doing pop-ups or figured out how I was going to share the books besides on Instagram, but we did a two-day pop-up in September 2020, and it was really cool. That’s what led me to the opportunity to exhibit the project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Right now, it is a traveling collection of Black art books that are meant to be a resource for people to learn from, but, eventually, I do want to have a permanent space for it in Detroit.

KO: I love that so much. Even though you would like it to have a permanent space, can you tell me why it’s important to you that the collection travel outside of Detroit?

AW: So, first I did an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and then my next opportunity that same year was in Cleveland. I thought that taking it somewhere else could be a cool way for other people to learn about the project, which is what still interests me about having it travel around. It’s a way for other communities to learn about it, see it, and, hopefully, when it does have a permanent space in Detroit, they’ll be interested enough to come visit it. I feel like taking it out into the world and letting everybody get a glimpse of it—before reeling it back in—will help me build my audience and just have more awareness around what I’m trying to do.

Nine times out of ten, when I do an exhibit somewhere, I leave with more books than I came with. It’s really nice to have that support from institutions and individuals.

Asmaa Walton

KO: This relates so well to my fellowship project. My research was really inspired by the scholar Carolyn Fowler’s amazing bibliography on Black art and aesthetics, which she started circulating with friends and colleagues in the 1970s. Entries in her bibliography grew from around 800 to over 2,000 in just a few years. And Howard Rambsy II, who is currently a professor of literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, wrote an essay on Fowler that also informed by work as a fellow—he talks about creating public bibliographies on his blog.

So, one of the through lines of all of this is the idea of Black knowledge production as communal action. How does that manifest in Black Art Library’s programming?

AW: With Black Art Library, some of the books aren’t available to check out, but I want to give people the resource in any way that I can, whether that means scanning, printing some pages, taking pictures … I’m trying to make it accessible and keeping everything in one space kind of makes it more accessible because you always know where the books are. You can always go and access the collection. When books are checked out, somebody else can’t have them. They can’t see them. Those are my thoughts behind that.

But since I’ve been doing this, I’ve realized that it is a communal practice. I kind of think that Black people are communal people—everything that we do is around community. I want other Black people to have this information too, and that’s why I’m doing this.

During the time that the library was in Cleveland, I had a program with the Museum of Creative Human Art, which is based there. They have a partnership with MOCA Cleveland, and in their gallery space they can bring in any artist they want, usually local artists and Black artists. One of my programs was to work with them to bring middle school students to MOCA Cleveland. I brought some of the books for them to look at and then we took them through the museum and to the exhibition of the local artist. And I had a making project for them—they made DIY Black Art Library cards. They made their own library cards.

A more recent program I did was in North Carolina at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African- American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. It was a nighttime event for young adults. I like doing hands-on activities with adults—they actually do like crafts! So, I did that same library card project with them and talked to them about the collection. I had about 100 set up there, and they were able to browse and ask questions. It’s really nice to build more community for Black Art Library, both in-person and online. When I did my first exhibition at MOCA Detroit, the collection was a lot smaller, about half the size that it is now.

KO: That’s amazing. You spoke about the GoFundMe, but what are some other ways that people can help you build the Black Art Library collection?

AW: I buy a majority of the books online through eBay and used bookstores. I’ve received some really great donations of books—the first big donation I got was in 2020 from one of my followers. He sent me a box of ten or so books, all Studio Museum publications. That’s when I realized that a lot of people have things like this on their shelves that they never go back to, and they’d rather the books be held somewhere to be used. It just makes me really happy that people are willing to donate to the project. I also get books from publishers, which has been really great. Artists, like the sculptor Thomas J Price, have reached out, too. I’ve had book donations from galleries and museums. Nine times out of ten, when I do an exhibit somewhere, I leave with more books than I came with. It’s really nice to have that support from institutions and individuals. I want to build up more of those relationships because they’re really important.

  • Essays — Wikimedia Fellow Kristen Owens and Black Art Library Founder Asmaa Walton Discuss Resource Sharing, Communal Action, and More, Feb 2, 2023