Outsider artist Joe Minter's African Village.
October 29, 2009
Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals. After a certain familiarity with these flourishings of an exalted feverishness, lived so fully and so intensely by their authors, we cannot avoid the feeling that in relation to these works, cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade. —Jean Dubuffet
"I wore out two Chevy trucks getting all this in here."
That's artist Joe Minter attempting to explain the daunting scale of his African Village, a packed-to-the brim sculpture garden of found objects and metal work at his home just south of Elmwood Cemetery. Anyone observing Minter's ongoing project, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, might respond with "Only two trucks?"
Minter claims that he began crafting art objects in his yard after receiving a message from God. That claim places him firmly in the category of "visionary artist." Scholars and proponents of this kind of art—and creative impulse—call Minter's sculpture garden a "visionary environment" in which a body of purely intuitive works comprise a specific structure or defined space. Minter, by way of contrast, calls his African Village simply "a message and story of my people and God's love."
|Joe Minter and his "talking stick." All Photographs by Mark Gooch. (click for larger version)|
Minter's property sits adjacent to, and overlooks portions of, two historic black cemeteries, Grace Hill and Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens. It's a fitting juxtaposition. While the overarching theme here concerns the African diaspora and the civil rights struggle, one specific subject has gained prominence: black men and women serving and dying in the U.S. military. Starting with the American Revolution and continuing to the current war in Afghanistan, Minter has explicated that history with massive, astonishingly intricate shrines and totems. They are not works of mere symbolism; Minter can speak extemporaneously, with names, dates, numbers, and details, about his "brothers and sisters" who have sacrificed for a nation in which "they were invisible."
Huge placards and boards with passages of scripture and religious-themed messages function as signposts on the property, and Minter obviously views all history as a kind of elaborate, continuing Bible story. His take on Afghanistan, for example, is both reductive and compelling:
"Afghanistan doesn't play with it. We might have to come running out of there like the Russians did. We left Vietnam and we might end up doing the same thing, because you know you can't beat a man in a mountainside. You're fighting a culture that goes all the way back to the time of Abraham! So you know they are not in no kind of hurry to change now. We're in there bombing up an area where Christianity, Judaism, it all started there. So we may have to come to the table and talk, because right now we're disturbing a part of the Earth where God first had us in harmony."
|One of Joe Minter's African warriors. (click for larger version)|
Minter insists that his African Village is there for "all the people to come and see," and there is an open-gate policy in place for anyone wishing to tour the site. I was lucky enough to get a guided tour. Minter, accompanied by the jingling bells of his "talking stick" (a portable found-objects work that details African history) and the frantic cawing of crows perched in a dying tree at the corner of Grace Hill Cemetery, calmly held forth on a number of historical topics. The take-home point: all these events we call history are just a series of moments in which God "will bless us, teach us, or try to reach us."
Stopping at the uppermost corner of his sculpture garden, where recent "disaster" shrines depict hurricane Katrina and 9/11, Minter summarized his progress so far:
|Satellite dishes, flanked by Mary and Joseph, receive messages from the heavens. (click for larger version)|
"This is a spot where you find something like pure 'D' serenity, of tranquility, put together where you can hear everything. Lots of rabbits and doves, all kinds of birds, all connected with peace and love. This is all an open-heart history lesson, this African Village that tells the story of a 400-year journey of my people. This was made by sweat and tears, and patience and love. God loves these two things: sweat and tears. Each one of them can attribute to either joy or sorrow."
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|A portion of a work Minter calls "Slave Ship." (click for larger version)|
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