Grand Reading Room (Everette Wilson/The Intersteller Studios)
Grand Reading Room (Everette Wilson/The Intersteller Studios)

For nearly four decades, people gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to learn about and organize for racial justice. When the District’s central library reopens on Sept. 24 for limited services, four Black artists spanning several generations will help showcase that struggle for equality.

Donald L. Miller’s iconic “King Mural” will be joined by Nekisha Durrett’s “Prepare to Participate,” Xenobia Bailey’s “Funktional Frequency, Liberation Station” and 13 works by former DC educator, Alma Thomas. Each artist shows a representation of Black art using a different medium.

The King Mural Returns to the Great Hall

“The King Mural” has been the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s signature piece since it was installed in 1986. Commissioned by the DC Public Library, the 56 x 7-foot mural captures the life and work of Dr. King and the American Civil Rights Movement through nearly 100 images, buildings and events. During the modernization, the mural was cleaned and stored offsite. With the modernization complete, the mural is returning to Great Hall.

Prepare to Participate in the Building’s Entry

As part of the building’s modernization, the main entrance was redesigned to create a sense of openness and welcome. New double-height glass walls showcase two grand, monumental staircases. These new walls are the site of Nekisha Durrett’s art installation “Prepare to Participate.”

Durrett’s turned thousands of images into discrete dots that create two larger images. The east installation is a 1967 image of Dr. King at Cardozo High School from the Library’s Washington Star Photograph Collection. The west installation shows student activists who attend Cardozo in 2020. The dots in the images are historic buttons from the Library’s Special Collections and artworks created by youth at workshops and the Ellington School of the Arts.

Creating large-scale installations and public sculpture that makes the ordinary enchanting, Durrett transforms subject matter that is often hidden from plain sight into art. Durrett was selected from a pool of 70 artists by a panel of experts with input from community advisors.

Grand Reading Room

The grand reading room on the third floor features a textile art installation by Xenobia Bailey: “Funktional Frequency, Liberation Station.” Eleven suspended circular mobiles with crocheted copper wire hang below a canvas digital cosmic composition. The collage is composed of multi-colored energy swirls of cosmic regeneration in varying sizes, references the cosmos’ navigational tools, and illustrates an abstraction of the Farmers’ Almanac. The collage also contains images of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom from the Library’s collection.

Artist Xenobia Bailey, was commissioned to create the piece. Known for her elaborate designs evoking African and Native American patterns, Bailey’s works can be found in the permanent collections at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Museum of Contemporary Arts and in the Museum of Arts and Design. The artwork continues Bailey’s epic project “Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk.”

Art, Programs New Teen Space Named for Alma Thomas

Middle and high schoolers will congregate, use private study rooms, and enjoy the new Alma Thomas teen room. The 10,000 square foot space is filled with age-appropriate books, lounge seating and a gaming area.

The room is dedicated to the renowned painter and educator Alma Thomas. Thomas was the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts program and one of the first African American women to earn an art degree. She taught at Shaw Junior High School. As a painter, she is best known for her colorful abstract paintings. In 2015 she became the first African American woman to have her work added to the White House permanent collection.

Susan and Dit Talley donated 13 of Thomas’s pieces to the Library. A rotating selection of two to three works will be displayed on the wall outside the room bearing her name. In addition, the donation supports teen programming honoring Thomas.

To learn more about the art in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and the reopening schedule of virtual events, visit the Library’s website or download the DC Public Library mobile app.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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