(Video: Joe Minter gives Yellowhammer a atour of his African Village in America)
You could call Joe Minter an artist, but that doesn’t really do him justice. He prefers to be called a storyteller. Since 1989, Joe has been filling his yard with sculptures and shrines, all in an attempt to tell a story.
“I’m on a mission,” he says. “I’m trying to reach the next generation that don’t know nothing about what America has been through.”
Joe is the creator of the African Village in America, a folk-art project in Birmingham, Alabama, that explores African and American history. At first glance, his lawn looks more like a junkyard than an art project, but after taking a closer look, patterns emerge and it becomes clear there’s a method to the madness. The New York Times called it “one of the nation’s most extraordinary and least-known sculpture gardens.”
After retiring from construction work, Joe says God gave him a vision. “I asked God to give me the strength and compassion to tell a story,” he says.
He looked at his empty property and knew what he was called to do. Using materials from flea markets, thrift stores and even the side of the road, Joe started creating pieces of art that commemorate different parts of African American history. “My mission is to talk,” he says. “God revealed to me that you have to build before you can talk.”
If you’re lucky enough to show up when Joe is home, he’ll guide you through the African Village, telling stories and holding his decorated walking stick the whole time. He might show you his re-creation of the jail cell in which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Or maybe he’ll take you to the side of the yard dedicated to disaster memorials, including one representing the World Trade Center. Maybe he’ll talk about the pieces of iron with bible verses painted on them that are scattered throughout the property. You never really know what you’ll get with Joe, and that’s half the fun.
His motto is “use what you got,” and he hopes his work will inspire younger generations to learn about American history and African culture. Most of his artwork makes a political or spiritual statement.
“I’m trying to be a link to the children,” he says. “Old folks are contrary and set in their ways. I’m reaching out to younger people…so they can realize that we might not have it all together, but together we have it all.”
The African Village in America is next to Grace Hill and Shadow Lawn, two historically black graveyards. “There are 100,000 ancestors out there,” he says, slowly waving his hand in the direction of the graves. Joe’s father, who worked at a predominately white graveyard, is buried right next to the house. “All of my thoughts come from these 100,000 ancestors right here.”
Joe says that while the African Village in America is an attempt to educate, he also hopes the project will soothe some of the pain in America. “Everything I say is from the heart of compassion, not the heart of hate,” he says. He laments the struggle that African Americans have faced–and continue to face–in America, but recognizes that sometimes progress is only made through struggle.
Try to compliment Joe on his work, and he’ll be the first to correct you. “This ain’t me,” he says. “This is God’s blueprint.”
While only about 50 people visited the African Village in America last year, the doors are always open, and it’s always free. Hilda, Joe’s wife, loves when visitors stop by. “If you don’t visit me, there’s no one to keep me company,” she says. She might even try to sell you a t-shirt.
Although it remains largely unknown in Birmingham, The African Village in America is a unique cultural experience that offers a glimpse into old Southern folk-art. Joe says he isn’t sure what will happen to it when he’s gone, but until that day, he plans to continue telling stories.
“Just keep on working,” he says, looking at everything he’s created. “Keep on working.”
Note: Joe Minter’s African Village in America is located at 931 Nassau Ave SW, Birmingham, Alabama. You can reach Joe and Hilda at (205) 327-7370.