Homecoming for Artists of Art Africa Miami’s First Show
One didn’t need to grab a drink or sample the comfort food offerings in the opening party — though it did look good!— or catch the vibe of the party’s musicians, to feel the happiness of this occasion. Art Africa Miami 2019 felt like a family welcome, even for those of us who had never been to an Art Africa Miami Arts Fair before.
Billed as “a retrospective that commemorates nine years of social justice through diasporic arts”, this was the first of the many shows that are now under the umbrella of Art of Black Miami. This 2019 show was a homecoming for many of the artists who helped launch Art Africa Miami in 2011, or perhaps whom Art Africa Miami helped launch—this particular chicken/egg riddle being too difficult for a newcomer to decipher.
These artists seem to have come that proverbial long way — having exhibited since the first Art Africa Miami in 2011 in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean and throughout the USA—and far from the church basements where the show’s founder explains Black Art was exhibited before this show began nine years ago. We spoke with one exhibiting artist who recounted he was a happy Miamian until September 11 sequelae caused a cultural shift, spurring him to move out of Florida. Others reportedly had left Miami too, carried largely by their careers. Some, also flanking their works and eager to chat us up, seemed to have never left Miami, finding it fertile ground to keep their art going and growing along with the Miami art scene. It seemed though, that it was the returning sons—and they did seem to be mainly men, with few women artists in the mix— who gave the event a happy homecoming feel.
Weaving in and out of artist gaggles and mixing in the visitor crowd was Art Africa Miami founder Neil Hall, a booster not only for the artists whom he seems to have a warm mentoring energy towards, but also for Overtown as a whole. Hall, an architect and developer, describes himself as taking on the role of first critic for many of these artists, with confidence in his wisdom and eye able to spare them missteps. Hall envisions Overtown as a creative hub, perhaps reaching for the status of Harlem back in the day. In a brief conversation Hall seemed a bit weary of those who suggest that bringing art to Overtown is a harbinger of unwelcomed gentrification. “Doesn’t the community deserve art?” he asks pointedly.
The new Art Africa Miami home—a commercial space in a Hall-originated development—was noticeably friendly to the art being exhibited there. Sunny, light and airy—this is an elemental structure and space that allows art of all kinds to look its best, in this writer/photographer team’s view. Nothing about the exhibit space draws your attention away from the art. Paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed media, all--- seem natural. The materials used to make the art seemed real. Unfortunately, the streaking sun that warmed the space didn’t make photographing the exhibit easy, or satisfactory.
Art Africa Miami is Magnet to Historic Overton
It took but an hour to tour the Art Africa Miami exhibit, leaving time and mindspace to soak up the surrounding Overtown area, which seems to be exactly what the Overtown promoters would like us to do during Miami Art Week.
Concerts were being held throughout the week at the Lyric Theater and outside it, one block up from where Art Africa Miami 2019 was held. Once an important stop on what was called the chitlin circuit, it’s the oldest theater in Miami, dating back to 1913. You can tour historic Black archives here too.
You see Afro-centric popular art —in colorful murals and a smile-inducing afro-pik sculpture, next to a high-end restaurant about to open, the Red Rooster, which several locals spoke about with great anticipation and pride.
Point Comfort Art Fair
Concomitant with Art Africa Miami, was a smaller Hampton Art Lovers special event called Point Comfort Art Fair & Show, named for the Virginia spot where slaves landed. With a decidedly different feel, this was a quick showcase of works from the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and an especially good introduction, in this writer’s view, to the sculpture of Basel Watson, a one-time art professor at Spelman.
Overtown’s Dorsey House- a Snapshot in Time
Perhaps the best stumble upon serendipity in Overtown, for this writer/photographer team, was the Dorsey House, an hors d’oeuvres of a museum, just across the street from the Point Comfort Art Fair & Show.
Here one found historic archival images and placards explaining the museum’s namesake history, and also outstanding high quality special exhibits—one commemorating Obama’s historic presidency and the other of Overtown’s native son, artist Purvis Young.
Dorsey, we learned, was Miami’s first Black millionaire, who made his fortune in real estate. One reads in the historic placards of how every Sunday Dorsey’s chauffeur would take him from house to house in Overtown, so he could collect the rents. One learns also of the squabbles in later generations to keep the family’s fortune in tact. It’s a story that lingered to animate this writer’s experience of walking only a quarter of a mile or so away from the Museum, to where homeless people are today camped out near railroad tracks.
Purvis Young In Situ
It wasn’t just at the Dorsey House that one ran into the artwork from Overtown’s apparent favorite son, Purvis Young, but it seemed the strongest and most compelling collection to convey why he has the moniker “Rembrandt of Overtown”.
One could find his work on display in a synagogue opening its doors for Miami Art Week, or at the famed Rubell Museum, and in its bookstore. One learns of how his work is now being collected by rock stars and other glitterati worldwide. Yet, it’s difficult not to imagine that the best of the best was to be found in the Dorsey House’s halls. One caution--- bring your sweater, because the thermostat at this museum is kept very low in order to preserve these art works.