Visiting Joe Minter’s African Village in America

Joe Minter's African VillageVisiting Joe Minter’s “African Village in America” just outside Birmingham, Alabama is one of those transformative experiences. It’s an acre of art, sculptures, found objects, doll heads, scrawled sayings and cultivated eccentricities, all behind a chain link fence. Joe’s home is on the front end of the property. Most of the time, the gate is locked and closed, however Joe is expecting us. When we arrive, Joe is nowhere to be found so we enter the grounds and take a gander for ourselves.  Our good friend, Matt Arnett, co-founder of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation (a major advocate of Joe and his art) has called Joe to let him know we are arriving. It was Matt’s dad, Bill Arnett, who brought awareness to Joe and dozens of other vernacular African-American artists in the deep South, like the Gee’s Bend Quilters and Thornton Dial,

We immediately realize we are standing on sacred ground of art, social justice and Godliness.

We immediately realize we are standing on sacred ground of art, social justice and Godliness. We get very quiet and begin to explore this elegiac space. There are no guideposts or signs – driving by you might think it’s a junk yard or the work of a madman. Hardly. Joe Minter’s work hangs in the Whitney, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. There’s an achingly beautiful sculpture in our local High Art Museum of Atlanta called “Chains in Paradise” that is both angelic and painful.  Art and sculptures are everywhere and it’s truly astonishing. It’s also been raining off and, on all day, and bees are darting in and out of sculptures making kamikaze moves towards my head. I’m undeterred.

There’s no insider or outsider art, because art is all one.

Those needing to categorize art would probably classify Joe’s in the “Outsider Art” box. He’d heartily disagree. Joe says, “There’s no insider” or “outsider” art because art is all one. All that we know, all that we have been, can be explained in art.” I tend to agree with Joe on this. He may not have formal training, but his creative output is genius.

I am reminded of the art I know so well from my time spent in Haiti, particularly the metal artisans in Croix-des-Bouquets. Like Joe, these artists work with a combination of found and discarded objects. Much of that work is inspired by Voodoo and imagination. Joe derives much of his inspiration from the Bible and history. While the art pieces In Haiti are different from Joe’s, there’s an uncanny similarity in that both arts forms blend absolute whimsy with pain and each piece is infused with multiple meanings.

Joe Minter's Sculpture MLK JuniorEvery square inch of Joe’s African Village in America is densely packed with his artwork. There are swaths of this artistic wonderland that are challenging to navigate. I  trip over the feet of a large, concrete, life-sized sculpture of a Doberman. In catching my footing, I realize I am standing in front of Joe’s famous elegy to Martin Luther King Jr. It’s his recreation and testimony to the Martin Luther King Jr’s incarceration in the Birmingham jail. The entrance to the large, room-like sculpture features two heavy iron doors, with Bible verses and names of other civil rights heroes scrolled in white paint. It’s both a temple and an aching reminder of the struggle of one man, representing the struggle of many. Inside the doors sits a slumped a human form, in black and white stripes and chains. There is a toilet, a rusty sink, and a bed frame. The top of the structure is covered in barbed wire, with a simple cross hanging from a lone wire. I stand outside the sculpture for a long time, altogether unaware of the hostile bees buzzing around me.

Joe still has not arrived, so we knock on the door of his simple one-story brick home, with a bold red fence and yellow and black Tiger-striped chimney. The top of the chimney says “God, Love and Peace.”  We’ve called Matt Arnett who tells us to go on in. Joe’s wife Hilda is most certainly home. She’s small, very old and moves slowly. I’ve brought her a jar of blueberry jelly I made and we have a long slow talk about jelly and jam. She suggests Joe might bring home a biscuit to eat with the jam. The entry window to their simple home is covered with a hand-sewn quilt.  She says Joe takes care of her and she takes care of him, and they are lucky to have one another. I only recently learned that Hilda passed away just four months after we visited. Joe has since buried her behind their home.

We hear a pickup and Joe has arrived in his signature hard hat. He says he wears it all the time as a kind of protection to the temple of God. Joe starts talking before he’s even out of the cab. He’s a fast talker and I can barely capture all he has to say, I am able to videotape him giving a treatise on the meaning of art. He says, “There’s the vision and the word and how do you connect  it?  It links with how you connect with ARTS. A, R, T. S. A is abstract. R is rhythm. T is thought. S is statement. Each one of those is joined together to perform that part of a universal mindsight (sic).”

Visiting Joe and his African Village in Birmingham puts you into a completely different mindset about art. His property, his sculptures, his painted sayings are a window into the world of the African American experience that is real, raw, and challenging to comprehend.  I worry about Joe’s treasure trove of art being at risk in that it’s on Joe’s private property and he has no museum staff to guard it or keep the doors open. I am grateful for the efforts of my friend Matt Arnett and The Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which actively advocates and promotes Joe’s art. They recently worked with and provided funding to the University of Alabama.  A team there has agreed to visually document every square inch of Joe’s African Village. They are using advanced technology to record the art and the experience of visiting. Soon visitors will be able to have a similar experience to mine (sans the bees) in virtual reality.

Note: There are no open and closing hours for Joe Minter’s African Village in America. The address is: 933 Nassau Ave SW, Birmingham, AL 35211.

You truly don’t need to enter to get a sense of the scale and to be astonished by his sculptures and sayings. You can get a good sense of the art within through the gate.

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