The Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library has been transformed for the month of June into a giant conceptual art space, beginning with a piece of red masking tape at the entrance...
...extending and branching out to quotes that have been attached to the floor that reflect on FESTAC '77, which was the Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977.
As an explanatory brochure notes, "An estimated total of 70,000 artists, performers, thinkers, and writers attended, from at least sixty countries, including the United States. Although it was a life-altering experience for many participants and attendees, FESTAC received little mainstream press coverage, and most of the prominent writers who were present did not publish about their experiences in Nigeria. The festival's history is still to be written."
The library "intervention" was created through SFMOMA by Ntone Edjabe and Stacy Hardy, two members of a Cape Town, South Africa collective called Chimurenga that "produces a pan-African journal of culture, art, and politics."
Their explanation continues: "The Chimurenga Library is an ongoing intervention that seeks to re-imagine the Library as a laboratory for extended curiosity, new adventures, critical thinking, daydreaming, socio-political involvement, partying and random perusal. The Chimurenga Library embodies the process of 'finding oneself,' as South African jazz musician Moses Molelekwa put it, on the shelves of other libraries and archives; in other spaces; or quietly encroaching upon classification systems; or proposing a new navigation system, clearly subjective and affective."
Though I find most conceptual art underwhelming and pretentious, this "intervention" is marvelous and fascinating in every respect, never lecturing or telling you how to think but instead encouraging onlookers to explore and make their own connections.
The quotes on the floor tend to be pungent and contradictory and immensely entertaining, such as Brent Hayes Edwards' description of Sun Ra above:
The pianist and composer Sun Ra had been invited at the last minute to bring his big band the Arkestra to FESTAC. The festival offered no money up front, and many of the members of the band had been sceptical, but Sun Ra apparently chastised them: ‘Your ancestors came to America without a cent. How much money do you have?’ ‘Fifty cents,’ answered one of the musicians. Sun Ra said, ‘That’s fifty cents more than your ancestors had,’ and insisted they make the trip. Musicians in the Arkestra later reported that when a Nigerian at the airport yelled, ‘Welcome home, Sun Ra!’ as the Arkestra got off the plane, Ra responded acidly, ‘Home? Your people sold mine. This is no longer my home!’
The "intervention" covers all six floors of the library, and possibly its greatest innovation is leading curious onlookers to library stacks...
...where an obscure volume will be highlighted if you want to explore a particular byway in more depth.
Photography exhibitions about poor and exotic "Others" at modern art museums have always struck me as borderline offensive, but the San Francisco Main Library is a whole different story.
With a huge percentage of black patrons every day of the week, this "intervention" feels integrated with the building to a remarkable degree. It is not only an exquisite repurposing of the library, but offers a creative template for a building-wide examination of any subect. Check it out before June 29th, and give yourself a couple of hours to explore.