By CHRISTINA L. SCHMITT December 16, 2023
“Blessed be the Peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“Genesis 1:1 In the Beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Art is a gift from God to man for universal understanding. There is no inside or outside art, all of it is a gift from God to man. God was the first artist that ever existed.”
Joe Minter, “To You Through Me: The Beginning of a Link of a Journey of 400 Years.” (Institute/Tinwood Press, 2018) pp. 64-65
In the summer of 1989, Joe Minter had a vision that beckoned him to create art and an improvised evolving “African Village” to honor the shared experiences of African Americans descended from ancestors captured in Africa and brought to the U.S in chains to be sold into slavery, which until, and also after, the official abolition of the ungodly institution at the close of the Civil War, was used to propel an economy based on unpaid labor. From then until now, Minter has been constructing an array of sculptural and informative pieces on the land adjacent to his home and the Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens, an historically black cemetery in Woodland Park, Birmingham, Alabama. He uses detritus, rusted tools, shovels, chains and other discarded finds like hubcaps and tire irons with haunting allusions to enforced backbreaking unremunerated labor and with rich metaphoric parallels to the cruel and unjust treatment of African American lives as somehow something to be easily used and discarded, as material for his vision and inspiration to make visible the “invisible”. Since this initial vision, he has been busy creating a continuously expanding art environment that documents local and global events effecting humanity and also records the contributions and achievements of African Americans as well as their collective trials and traumas due to the slave trade and its sadly enduring legacy.
MARCH Gallery exhibited a selection of these constructions under the piercing title “We Lost Our Spears” from Feb 9 - April 2, of 2022, reviewed in Whitehot Magazine by John Drury in May of 2022, (as well as in Art News, Feb. 2022, The Brooklyn Rail, March 22, 2022 and Burnaway, March 22, 2022), and Minter’s work was also featured in the Whitney Biennial curated by Rujeko Hockney and Jane Panetta in 2019.
MARCH’s follow up 2023 exhibit, “Under the Stars under the Sun”, showcased a poignant yet also lively series of 48” square paintings Minter, now in his eighties, has been creating more recently.
Mother Ship from 2023 is an iconic, essentialized depiction of a spiritual journey dating back through time and yet embracing the future, all conveyed through the abbreviated forms of a series of half-black half-white triangles, conjuring pyramids in light and shadow. Arrayed amid a field of red cross-hatched stars with an oversized bright blue star-burst and glowing piece of yellow Sun shining opposite each other from each upper corner, the triangles of the composition conjure Egyptian monuments, night, day, the cycles of time, and an African view of the heavens and earth still felt by a descendant of the diaspora far from his ancestral home. The piece seems to point to the possibility of artistic catharsis, spiritual renewal and reconnection.
The paintings are made outside, quite literally under the stars and the Sun, in an outdoor shed that acts as Minter’s studio. Employing black, white, primary and secondary colors arrayed in a patterned vocabulary of abstracted forms, they are yet a means of storytelling, message sending and teaching in addition to a uniquely personal expression of Minter’s calling and vision. Improvisational and inscribed with divinely inspired messages, they hearken back to a time when “art making” was more connected to the earth. Indeed, in a book documenting the 13th anniversary of Minter’s self-published handwritten manifesto and field guide to his “African Village” which was available on a bench for the viewer to read while taking in the paintings, an article Minter reproduced from the Birmingham News reported the discovery of a 77,000 year old carving found in Africa. Dating back much earlier than the oft-cited cave paintings found in Europe, the find suggests that the urge to communicate via daubing and drawing that seems to have arisen along with the development in humans of complex thought and organization was born out of Africa long before it made its way, with human migration, to Europe.
Minter’s mission is to reconnect a “lost” people with their deep cultural, spiritual, earth based and sky-kissed roots, a mission vibrantly illustrated by the at turns passionate, pathos-filled, profound and playful paintings hung in the two rooms of the gallery. The rhythmic dance of their colors and spiritual presence of their higher calling unexpectedly wooed this viewer in from across the street, to spend time getting to know them.
African Drum, replete with a pair of Minter’s used black work gloves glued to its surface as if in place of his actual hands beating out a perpetual syncopation, and African Mask, a flattened, loosely geometric, version of the usually 3-d carvings in black, yellow, pink and blue, seemed to reverberate with the Mother Ship’s inherent heart beat. They conveyed a sense of longing to return home to self and ancestors, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Minter has never been to the land of his forbears’ origin.
In the gallery’s second room, Yellow Jacket, Butterflies at Work and Insects’ Tracks in the Snow payed homage to the buzzing, fluttering and crawling rhythms of nature in primary and secondary colors, dancing against a black or white background but also conveyed overtones of the narrative of the cycles of labor of a people once enslaved and forced to work in captivity with parallels to their longing to fly free and return to their own migratory origins.
Lost Freedom (Misery Death African Slave Ship Going Down In Atlantic Ocean), documents the horrifyingly innumerable deaths suffered in the Middle-passage by soon to be enslaved peoples stolen from across the African Continent.
1 Million Deaths in U.S.A.(Tears Drops of Blood), is a moving depiction of the losses and mourning caused by the Covid Pandemic, and 50/50 House Divide is a vivid response to the current polarization of government and political discourse.
In A. R.T.S IS , from 2023, Minter creates an abstract talisman or modern mandala of sorts, dividing the canvas into four quadrants anchored by a central red circle in which the initials of the title are inscribed. Around these central letters the words “Artistic Rhythm Thought Statement” spell out what “A. R.T. S.” is, to Minter and to many creators throughout history. The painting acts as a keystone or conceptual/visual mantra, revealing to the viewer the foundational or guiding principles of Minter’s process of making images, and reads almost like a sacred window made from paint instead of stained glass.
Taken as a whole, Minter’s work calls out to the viewer as both a lament over deep injustices and a celebration of the power of the human heart to survive cycle upon cycle of tragedies, singing out with a divinely inspired simultaneously ancient and current voice an urgent message to be heard and seen across geographical and political divides of the past and the present. It holds out hope for a potential healing by retracing and reclaiming links to the truths of a suppressed history and through the possibility of finally opened, formally blinded, physical eyes, as well as spiritually opened hearts.
The work is deeply felt, authentic, educational, rhythmic and revolutionary and, despite the horrors it sometimes directly sometimes indirectly bears witness to, also inspirational and uplifting, demonstrating that the mytho-poetical, alchemical process of art making can become something that triggers a chord deep within all of us, and can still remind us of our collective evolutionary roots, when painting was a transformative act, like music or story-telling. It reminds us that art, like people themselves, is not merely something to be bought and sold, but a means through which we might rediscover our natural connection to a greater whole.
Both timeless, and timely, the paintings speak directly to periods of trouble and division, making a brightly colored scripture-inscribed plea for peace. They posit a deeper understanding of humanity’s shared concerns and dependence on one another, asking us to consider when will we at last learn from the past and treat each other like brothers and sisters, to forge a more peaceful and just future? The exhibition was on view through October 21, 2023. WM
Christina L. Schmitt is a painter, poet and writer based in NYC. She has B.A.s in the History of Art & Architecture and in Painting/Printmaking from Brown University, where she also studied Philosophy and Classics, and an M. F. A. in Painting from the Milton Avery Graduate School at Bard. After working in Architecture (the family business) she left to pursue her creative endeavours full-time. Her recent paintings and drawings investigate interlocking and opposing colour and geometric relationships in ways that have been described as both mathematical and mystical. She is currently working on illustrating and editing a cycle of poems that personify numbers. She lives in Brooklyn Heights, not far from Walt Whitman, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, and Gypsy Rose Lee’s former stomping grounds, and keeps a studio in DUMBO.view all articles from this author