Joe Minter is an artist and cultural historian living in the Titusville neighborhood of Birmingham, surrounded by his magnum opus, a sprawling didactic artwork that he has dubbed the African Village in America. Built on land adjacent to both his home and the Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens, a historically black cemetery, the environment is constructed almost entirely from discarded elements, a direct symbolic gesture reflecting his belief that African Americans have themselves been discarded throughout American history. Minter is constantly at work on this ever-evolving outdoor installation that recounts both immediately local and world events that have affected humanity, with a focus on the contributions and tribulations of African Americans. Individual artworks document the Civil Rights Movement, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, American participation in various wars and conflicts, terrorist attacks, the legacies of slavery, and more recently, Trump’s wall and Covid-19, all narrated with Minter’s intuitive assemblage. There are, of course, moments of respite from the turmoil of the modern world with an implicit honoring of ancestors, loved ones, faith, and an essential acknowledgement of the power of love.
Minter began work on the African Village in America in the summer of 1989, in response to an announcement that the city of Birmingham was planning to build a civil rights museum. He worried that the “foot soldiers” would be left out of the official narrative and got to work making a literal place for them. Specifically, Minter writes “When I heard that Birmingham was going to build a civil rights museum, that gave me what you call a stepping stone. From what I was hearing, the main players in the freedom struggle, the foot soldiers, was left out of the story. We need the leaders, but without the foot soldiers, the struggle and fight can’t be won. But where is the recognition for the soldiers?” That recognition continues to come as Minter’s works are shown in museums and publications across the United States.
Joe Wade Minter Sr. was born in Birmingham on March 28, 1943 to Lawrence Dunbar and Rosie McAlpin Minter, the eighth of 10 children. His father served in World War I with the U.S. Army’s 366th Infantry Regiment, working as a mechanic in the segregated unit. Upon his return home, Minter’s father found work as caretaker for Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery. Like his father, Minter also served in the U.S. military and was drafted in 1965 to attend a “mech and tech” school learning skills related to engineering and mechanics. He would later operate generators across the Southern United States before being discharged in 1967.
After his brief, though impressionable military stint, Minter worked a variety of jobs in construction, disassembling and reassembling trucks, and, perhaps most importantly, building things out of metal—school furniture, exercise equipment, and truck beds. Minter’s military experience combined with years spent doing metal work and construction would give him the knowledge and practical experience needed to create the African Village in America and the hundreds of works that populate its ever-expanding site.
In recent years, Minter’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Alabama Contemporary, Atlanta Contemporary, and James Fuentes Gallery. His works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA, the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL, and the Minneapolis Museum of Art, Minneapolis, MN, among others. Minter was featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, curated by Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta.