First published: Winter 2009
African Village in America, a dense quarter-acre constructed art environment in Birmingham, AL, is comprised of dozens of rough-hewn sculptures and installations commemorating 400 years of African American history. Created over the past 20 years by Joe Minter, a self-taught African American artist, the site is an intensely personal artistic statement and expresses an epic historic and cultural vision.
The site is designed to testify to the endurance of Africans through the centuries of slavery and racism in America and is imbued with political and religious challenges to the viewer. The environment represents a spatialisation of history, for by confronting successively its individual works one is led through a record of pain and struggle. At the back of the site, overlooking the cemetery lying behind Minter's yard, is a group of figures at the base of a large tree stump symbolising an ancestral African village – the 'motherland and culture taken away.'
Out from this clustering, we are led to a work that invokes a slave ship and the horrors of the Middle Passage, which in turn brings us to the main section of the yard, the dense interweavings of constructions that bear witness to the history of lynching, slave and peonage labour, and the generations of black soldiers who fought and died for the country. Other pieces commemorate key moments in the civil rights movement such as the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr Martin Luther King's incarceration in Birmingham Jail and the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham.
Each work acts as a station of reflection and remembrance of a people's passion, sacrifice and deliverance. The timeline of historical testimony extends into the present as the artist continues to address the moral and political crises of our days - whether the wars in Iraq, 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina.
Throughout the site, painted signs identify and comment on what is being commemorated and challenge the viewers to affirm the nation's foundational political ideals and the Christian values of mercy, forgiveness and humility before God.
African Village in America is the creation of Joe Wade Minter, Sr, born in Birmingham in 1943. Raised under the South's Jim Crow laws, Minter vividly remembers the civil rights struggle in his city. Having graduated from high school and spent 2 years in the army (1965–1967), Minter laboured for the next 28 #years in jobs including metalwork, painting, construction and road work before retiring in 1995. Although he knew that the civil rights movement had given blacks the means to fight back against oppression, he felt deeply that the white man had not changed at all.
On the advice of a fellow 'African brother', who he sensed was sent by God, Minter set out in 1979 to write his personal meditations on the '400 year journey of African-American people in America', but soon lay his pen down. (26 years later, he would complete this work by self-publishing To You Through Me: The Beginning of a Link of a Journey of 400 Years.) But he continued to reflect on the situation of African Americans in America and in the 1980s, when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was established, Minter grew concerned that a significant part of the story of the black experience would never be told. He believed that the contributions of ordinary citizens who battled for human rights - who he called the 'foot soldiers' – would be disregarded in favour of the nationally known figures. Asking God for a vision, he received a mission to tell 'the story of the African people lost here in America.'