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Alison Gowans
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Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 – Cedar Rapids artist Akwi Nji has been many things over her career, including a teacher, a poet, a performer, a community arts facilitator, and a visual artist. 

She’ll bring all those hats to her newest role, as the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s 2024 artist-in-residence. 

She’ll facilitate a series of arts programs for all ages at the library this spring, and her work will be on exhibit in the Downtown Library’s Third Floor Gallery throughout the season. At the end of May, work created by community members alongside Nji will be displayed at Ladd and the Downtown libraries as part of her capstone “The People’s Poetics” project. 

“Ultimately this residency, in my mind, is about connection. Every activity I do is going to be about connection – connections between people, with each other, and with different versions of themselves,” Nji said.  

Nji’s background is as a poet and spoken word performance artist. She began exploring visual art in 2020, when the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement drove her to find new forms of expression. 

“It was 2020, so I couldn’t perform,” she said. “And then George Floyd’s murder set me off on a different track.” 

With her normal creative outlets of live performance closed, she needed to find new ways to express the deep anguish she was feeling.  

“Some of us as writers had spent our lives trying to help people understand the realities of race relations in this country,” she said. “I thought, now I need to figure out what I need. I couldn’t perform, and it was all getting bottled up." 

Her teenage daughter finally told her she needed to find a new outlet. 

“I was pacing, and she shouted, ‘Mom! You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with that energy,’” she said. 

She began working with fabric, creating multi-media mosaics, and more recently has focused on painting. 

Her work at the library will focus on conversations. Some will be about conversations between people and some will be about conversations with beloved works of literature. 

“I was previously a language arts teacher,” she said. “Some of the books that are on the most banned lists recently are books former students are now, still reaching out to me to say ‘Thanks for teaching from these books, they changed my life.’ I just need to make sure I’m continuing the conversation.” 

She has been working on paintings that incorporate book covers – specifically covers of often-banned books – and will invite patrons to make art of their own inspired by book covers. Another program will focus on writing letters based on favorite books – participants will be able to write to favorite characters, to authors, to other readers, or to former or future versions of themselves.  

“When books are restricted, we must reimagine our conversations about our access to them. How can I take the notion of frequently banned books and create visual art that catalyzes conversation around those books?” Nji said. 

Other work will focus on conversations between the many different populations who interact at the library each day. 

“I want to recognize the profoundly diverse demographics of community members who move through the library each day and think about the library as a really crucial hub of community engagement and a nuclear location in our community, where people of disparate backgrounds cross paths each day,” Nji said.  

Designing programs for that variety of people is a challenge she’s embracing. 

“This residency appeals to my approach to art – how can I create a formula that feels accessible, that anyone can feel comfortable engaging with? I want to create opportunities for anyone to feel like an artist,” she said. “I love it as an opportunity, and I love it as a challenge. What an honor to be able to try to figure out how to engage such disparate people.” 

Learn more about Nji at

Spring 2024 Artist in Residence Programs: 

Artist in Residence programs may be found on the library’s online calendar,, and in the spring issue of OPEN+ magazine, available at both library locations. 

Join Resident Artist Akwi Nji for collaborative art programs at the library this spring. Pieces created during the programs may be featured as part of Nji’s “The People’s Poetics” project in one of the library’s gallery spaces this summer. 


Gallery Opening 

Meet Nji and immerse yourself in her unique artistic vision at this gallery opening.  

Saturday, March 2, 2-3 pm, Downtown Library 


Pocketbook Poetry 

Write pocketbook-sized poetry with Nji during this drop-in program. The process is whimsical, and anyone can participate, regardless of their comfort level with poetry. Participants may draw inspiration from words and phrases overheard at the library. 

Wednesday, March 13, 10-11 am, Downtown Library 


Craft Your Cover 

Book covers can draw us into a story or remain with us long after the details of the story have faded. Create a unique art piece using recycled materials inspired by the cover of your favorite book. We’ll provide the materials, while you bring the book or a picture of the cover and join others in your community for this program.  

Teens: Friday, March 22, 2:30-3:30 pm, Downtown Library, Union 

Adults: Thursday, April 4, 6:30-7:30 pm. Ladd Library, Community Room 

All ages: Friday, May 17, 3-4 pm, Downtown Library, Beems A 


Letters in the Library: Write Together 

Letter writing is becoming a lost art in the digital age. Join a letter writing session honoring books that have notably impacted your life. You’ll have an opportunity to write a letter to a former version of yourself, such as the person you were before reading a book that impacted you greatly, a book character, or more. There are several approaches to this letter-writing experience. You’ll not only create a beautiful letter, you’ll share the experience with other book lovers and connect with each other over the books that have shaped you.  

Wednesday, March 27, 10-11 am 

Ladd Library, Community Room 


Text Threads

Every day we write our stories through the text messages we send each other. Nji will guide you as you create poetry from your personal text threads and collaborate on a mural. 

Teens: Friday, April 12, 2:30-3:30 pm 

Downtown Library, Union 

Everyone: Saturday, May 4, 10-11 am 

Downtown Library Beems Auditorium 


Letters in the Library: Drop-In Program 

During this drop-in program, write a letter to a favorite book character. Using the written letters, Nji will create a poem that will be featured as part of “The People’s Poetics” project. 

Monday, April 15, 10-11 am 

Ladd Library, Art Gallery 


Cover to Cover 

During this drop-in program, visit with the artist and view her artistic process as she creates a book cover inspired by her work and the connections she’s made with patrons during the library’s residency program. 

Thursday, May 2, 5:30-6:30 pm 

Downtown Library, Commons 


The People's Poetics Gallery Opening 

Celebrate the grand opening of “The People’s Poetics” project featuring work by Nji and library patrons. Visit with the artist and explore the convergence of art and poetry – of individual story and the stories in the library—in this new exhibit. 

Saturday, May 25, 10-11 am 

Downtown Library, Third Floor Gallery 


A woman, Akwi Nji, paints in front of partially finished canvases on a wall.