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Nestled at the end of an unassuming street in Birmingham there is a piece of land where history comes alive. Joe Minter's African Village in America. Standing on the street, peering over the sprawling chain link fence, one gets an immediate feeling of wonderment as to what lies on the other side. From this perspective you could easily take a quick glance and pass it off as an ever growing pile of junk, a hoarders graveyard if you will. But you would be woefully wrong. What does in fact reside here is a man's life devoted not only to his art but to spreading love and kindness to all who walk the narrow passageways that crisscross through this "village".
Walking through the expansive tangle of re
-purposed metal, wood and other odd and
ends can seem aimless but Joe guides you
from point to point stopping to discuss each
section and its meaning. Certain points in
history commemorated with installation type
works of art, thoughtfully pieced together by
hands that look as if they too have been
forged from the Iron that is so prevalent in the
majority of Joe's work.
Surrounding the backside of the village is a cemetery which Joe refers to as an "ancestral burial ground". "what we have here is a hundred thousand African Americans and we are amongst them, this is all our ancestors breathing this way on us letting us know they are listening and everything that comes through my voice is really what they saying".
Listening to Joe speak and getting to know
him not only as an artist but as a person is hard
to put into words. He speaks with authority but
through a gentle voice. As if he is teaching
more than simply talking. Always firm in his
grasp is what Joe calls his "Talking Stick". A
massive seven foot tall piece of solid pine that
he found on the side of the street some years
back. Adorned with bells and trinkets, it
speaks to visitors just as much as Joe himself does.
There is so much life in this place, overflowing
with character much like its creator. Joe
Minter is a gentle soul, a man who has spent
the last thirty plus years of his life trying to
make a difference with his words whether it
be walking visitors through his village or on
the front steps of the county courthouse. "my
body is going bad now, I can't keep going
down there as bad as I want to".
"I've had run ins with the police, I'm too old for that now, getting thrown on the ground and such".
Hours of talking with Joe fly by. He has such
a youthful demeanor when talking about his
art and life in general. Having him in my
studio gave me a chance to see another side
of him. Sitting there in front of my camera as I
was changing film backs and getting focus
locked in I was able to catch a glimpse of him
in quiet reflection. Almost as if he was looking
within himself, looking back on the years he
has spent paving a path on our streets hoping
others would not follow but join. You can see
the miles in his eyes, the years on his hands
and almost the burden in his heart to bring
others together for the greater good of us all.
If there is anything I can say about my time with Joe it's that his art is his life. Literally. Take a few hours to walk through this place, to listen to his words and you will realize as I did that he has put his entire life into every single piece of metal, wood and plastic that lies within here. Every scrap of Iron, every thrown out and reclaimed item has been put in its place here with determined care. It all traveled through the years and landed in its very spot for an undeniably specific reason just as Joe Minter himself has. More than likely you will leave just as I did, a changed person, better off having met the man that has Iron in his blood and love in his heart.
You can find more information about Joe and his African Village in America here