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An Interview with OlaRonke Akinmowo

Executive Director Kemi Ilesanmi recently had a conversation with OlaRonke Akinmowo, 2017 Create Change Artist-in-Residence and 2015 Create Change Fellow, about her practice and projects as a Black Women Artist.

Kemi: Let’s talk about the Free Black Women’s Library, one of your more well-known projects. How did you come up with the name?

Ola: I’ve been obsessed with these “little free libraries” that pop-up in spaces all over the world—this concept that you could have this type of space that pops up out of nowhere, that contains books, and anybody could just walk up to it, and if they have a book they could leave a book, and they could take one. So I thought: “I want to build a ‘Little Free Library’ in Bed-Stuy.”

And then I got involved with Black Lives Matter—working around issues of police brutality, etc. I noticed how there was a lot of talk about men and boys that were being harmed by police brutality, which is definitely a valid and very important thing to talk about, but the fact that there were women and girls that fall prey to police violence was never discussed. I participated in a direct action that was around a woman named Kyam Livingston, a mom who died in police custody in Brooklyn. So myself and some other folks did a direct action in Crown Heights, the neighborhood where she died, talking about police brutality while focusing on women and girls. The response I got that day was so intense, combative, and so painful that I felt very disempowered, angry, and just sad at the fact that the stories of these women and girls weren’t being told, and people also didn’t want to hear them.

I needed to figure out what to do with these feelings and find a way to have these conversations without coming from a place of victimhood. I had pictures on my computer of the little libraries I was obsessed with, in addition to pictures of all these different women and girls— Aiyana Stanley Jones, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Arnold, the list is endless. I wanted a project that centers Black women and girls, and the issues and the struggles that we deal with which includes state violence. But not just that, our lives are also about creativity, imagination, femininity, relationships, fashion, etc., so I thought, “I’m going to do this little free library—and I’m going to make it Black women centered books only. That can be a way to amplify all these things”

I got a mailbox and sent out an email stating “I’m collecting books by Black women, please send books to this address if you would like to contribute.” Initially, I was going to call it Herstory, but then I changed it. I wanted to make it more specific so it became The Free Black Women’s Library’? Within a month of sending the email, My goal was to collect 100 books, which I did in a month’s time but then they just kept coming. I decided to see how far I could take this. I also said “if you don’t have ability to send me books, feel free to send me titles of books you think I should have.”

I liked the play on the word free in “free Black women’s library” because these are books that were written from a point of liberation and empowerment. These are books that have a possibility for spiritual and emotional liberation— reading can open up the mind and invite you to see the world differently. I also like to use the word “Black” specifically because I want us to recognize the expansive nature of it, Blackness is global. Blackness includes all of Africa, Latin American, the Caribbean, Netherlands, United Kingdom. There is brilliant Black womanhood happening all over the world.

I consider the library a love letter to Black women and Black girls —“look how amazing you are. Look at how special you are. Look at the things that your mind has dreamed of. Look at what you can do. Look at what you can create.” It is also a celebration of that voice and that ability. Books are powerful, expression and imagination, pleasure and resource. The library  also allows and invites other folks to witness it and to be a part of this experience.

K: I love that! I love that the library is not just the books but that you intentionally lift Black women up, and you focus on the idea of radical librarians and archivists. Could you talk more about the idea of being a radical space for Black women?

O: So in terms of [the library] being a radical space, there are a couple of things that are important to me which I have a checklist for. One of them is that a space is intergenerational—I want all ages to feel welcome and included in whatever is happening. The collection of books for children and young adults is wonderful, and it’s nice to see how people of all ages enjoy it. Also important that library stays free to attend, and folks can be there all day. So anybody who wants or needs a place to be for sme hours can come and be there without needing money. Sometimes folks can come and read, write, draw, flirt. People have even taken naps at the library.  A third thing that is important to me is that the space is accessible to all body types, so if someone comes in with a cane or a wheelchair they can enter and move freely through the space. These are some of the things I think about whenever I am invited to bring the library somewhere. I want it to feel comfortable and simple, I also want it to feel beautiful and sculptural. I arrange them in a very specific manner, that aims to feel interactive and engaging. I want people to feel welcome to touch and recognize these books to feel special. The conversations that happen at the library are also quite radical, they are political and affirming, also hilarious and deep. All different types of Black women’s voices are heard and each voice is respected and seen as important.

K: What was the first book you got to exchange in the library?

O:My very first exchange was with a little girl who was 7 years old. Her and her mom happened to be walking by and when they saw the books stopped to talk to me and look at books, I explained to her how the process worked. They went home and came back a little later to do the exchange. One of the most awesome things about this moment to me is that her and her mom still come to the library, I think she’s almost 12 now!

K: How does Black August Cocoon, your LP residency project last year, connect to your larger body of work? Could you talk a little bit about how this project relates to issues of movement-building and collective care and healing?

O: Well, what had come up a lot with building the library, was this idea of safe space— it’s a term that is thrown around so much. The word bothered me a little bit because it’s just… there’s no such thing. For Black women and girls, there is no such thing as safe space.  To me, when someone says “safe space,” I like to push back and say safe spaces are a myth, but we can talk about building “brave space:” spaces where people can co-exist and feel like they can be their true selves, express themselves, create boundaries for themselves, and stand up for themselves. So, if they’re put in a position of harm, they’re prepared and at least have the possibility of protecting themselves from harm or managing that moment in a way that works for them. Whether it’s verbally or physically…

People would refer to the Library as a safe space, and I would say I’m glad you feel safe here, that’s awesome. And, as far as the cocoon project, it was really about this idea of the Black body and the Black woman’s body being a space and what practices can we put in place to keep ourselves as safe as possible. What things can we do that will allow us to step into our power and feel brave? So when conflict appears, we’re not thrown off-balance, we’re not devastated. We’re not destroyed by it, you know? When we experience trauma—trauma’s a part of life, it can’t be avoided. When we experience pain, how do we deal with it? What can we do to move into it and have it not be what defines us?

Part of the Black August Cocoon was that I’m always inspired by history and action, and Black August is a month of action for activists––for Black activists, for Black nationalists. It is part of a legacy of Black activism for organizations  and collectives to dive into education and physical training in the month of August. This is a ritual that we gathered from our ancestors. It inspires me and I connected it to the LP theme of Sanctuary, I was just combining, collaborating, collaging, with these ideas in my mind and observing a lot of what was happening in Bed-Stuy. Black women being street harassed. Street harassment is out of control in Bed-Stuy. Black women feeling pushed out as a result of violent gentrification, and or staying and dealing with microaggressions that come with it.

And, also seeing stuff on the news like a Black teenage girl being thrown across her classroom. That’s supposed to be a “safe space” actually, a school classroom! And yet, she was picked up and thrown across the room? Or you have the 15-year-old Black girl at a pool party and the cop sitting on top of her back, her face down in the grass. Being exposed to these images and the  challenges of day-to-day life; being fired for natural hair styles or being talked down to by doctors.

All these different things, these are the layers of violation that can happen to the Black woman’s body, and Black woman’s spirit. How do we deal with that and not get caught up in anger, in like, devastation and depression, anxiety… how do we deal? That was what the Black August Cocoon was about formulating practices to deal with the muck, one of the practices was our weekly self-defense class led by Sensei Beverly Sher Bradley. Learning how to defend ourselves in different ways in different scenarios. Like if someone coming at us from the front, or from behind. What if they have a weapon? Understanding that we don’t necessarily need to be physically strong to defend ourselves, just smart and aware. And then affirming each other, affirming our rights, in terms of dignity and the respect we deserve. The compassion and humanity. We also had conversations about experiences that we’ve had and how we’ve dealt with it, so we’re learning from each other. We did a lot of writing, each week was inspired by a different prompt pulled from Black Feminist writings, we wrote poetry, essays and prose and also did lot of talking.

We met weekly and also communicated through email, through this project I also began to  create an archive of documents that we can all use as a resource, that will support and inspire.

K: How does that archive continue to live in the world?

O: I’m creating a digital platform and the goal is that it will serve as the resource for Black women and girls or anyone else who might be interested in its contents. It will be somewhat like a Free Black Women’s Library resource center. That’s what i’m calling it in my mind. Black Women’s Resource Center but it’s not an actual physical center, it’s virtual.

The things that were written by the members of the Black August Cocoon, the essays, short stories, poems, those things will be more of a chapbook or zine, entitled Black August Cocoon,  and will feature the work of the women in the collective. That’s one of my main goals for Black August Cocoon is for their to be a physical representation of our time together that we can share with others. That idea is inspired by the Combahee River Collective and the statement that they released. It will contain what we do to feel safe. The ways we move through the world. There were women in the collective who were herbalists, so there is information about herbs in there. There were women in the collective who were performers, so they talk about performance. There is talk of religion and spirituality, practical life moments. It’s a beautiful mix.

K: How has your time with The LP influenced your practice?

O: Going through The LP’s Create Change program as a fellow is something that really turned me on to the idea of collaborating with people and organizations. I learned the strength and growth that can come with working with other people. And as a person who was definitely somewhat of an introvert, it motivated me to put myself out there more as an artist, and use creative ways to share my art with my community and the world.

I also really value the idea of creating  art that is purposeful, art that is political, art that activates spaces, I see the LP as a place that nurtures these things. Art that has an impact on community and addresses issues that feels relevant. I found it very significant going through the workshops and the constant thread of you’re going into community to do work, make sure that there’s an actual connection with the community taking place. Not just stepping into a space like “we are here to do this”, but actually going into the community and developing a real relationship and understanding of what that community is about and where can you fit in. It’s not about shaping the communities to meet you needs, but shaping your creativity to actually address what is important to the people that you’re working with.

I appreciate the different opportunities I have had to connect with people around Black women’s literature through the library, whether its at  Studio Museum in Harlem, Weeksville Heritage Center, Concord Church, Halsey Street Garden, or Chokmah Barber Shop, I have witnessed and been a part of some beautiful rich conversations. That has been my experience back to back to back for months and the LP was part of what showed me the importance of these connections.

K: Speaking of books, which one is important to you right now?

O: One of the last books I read that is really super awesome, is this book called Meaty by Samantha Irby. It is poignant, bittersweet, is both sad and hilarious. It’s the first book that I’ve ever read that has made me laugh out loud repeatedly. It’s a memoir, and it’s just really great and really different. I’ve never read anything like it in my life and for some like me who reads a lot, that’s really refreshing.

K: So my last question is, how do you want to keep showing up in the world as a Black Woman Artist?

O: I want to be consistent, grateful, compassionate, easily understood, playful, honest and inspiring. I want to create beauty. I want to create moments of pleasure and joy. I want to inspire critical thinking and a deeper analysis. I want to bring Blackness and femininity, my anger, sadness and Love. I want to bring my whole self in a way that feels good for me.

Find out more about the Free Black Women’s Library here.

Watch Ola’s 2017 Create Change artist video below!

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