Article by Fred Scruton
All text and photographs by Fred Scruton
The chain-link fence separating Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens from Joe Minter’s African Village in America presents no barrier to the spirits. Minter’s nearly one-acre site combines adjacent lots on the Shadow Lawn side of an uphill, dead-end street in Birmingham, Ala. and has sweeping views of the rolling, 40-acre his-torically Black cemetery. “It’s just like God give it to me to be able to explain me and my people,” he says.
A hand-lettered metal sign leaning over the street-side fence reads “African • Ancestry • Bury Ground • 100,000.” Joe Minter hears their voices. “The African here in America is a kidnapped child. This is a story that needs to be told, a story that we can only get through our ancestors, and I’m getting it right now,” he said, as breezes picked-up and rattled his dense field of metal signage and sculpture, “They testifying right now with this wind all around – they heard me.”
Shadow Lawn contains the remains of slaves. Joe’s WWI veteran father, Lawrence Minter is buried there – just across from the Minter’s rough-hewn, bright blue house. “He died in ’59 and we come here in ’70 – like he had put a stake on this house.” In 2021, Hilda, Minter’s wife of 52 years, was buried behind their house – only a few yards into the cemetery, his father and their elder son nearby. One day, Joe Minter will lie with his ancestors next to Hilda.“I can hear my wife right now sayin’ ‘Come on home, old Joe, Jesus is waiting on you.’”
The African Village portion of Minter’s art environment fills the terminal lot next to his house with found-object assemblages, metal-roofed huts, wooden and concrete-block walkways, hand-painted signs, and numerous aluminum crutches reshaped into spears. He converts the crutches by removing the handgrips and under-arm pads before bending the upper support columns into a point at the top. Seen akilter throughout the Village, the crutch-spears are mounted up high as if being toted by groups of dancing villagers.
Minter often references Zulu warriors: “The Zulu proved himself. When the Europeans came through with all their machine guns and stuff – they stood their ground…” During protest demonstrations he carries a hand-painted ‘ZULU’ sign in red, black, and green (Pan-African) letters attached to a crutch-spear, along with a shield-shaped ‘MANDELA’ sign, also carried by groups of dancing villagers.
From his second-story porch facing the cemetery, he says, “I am standing right here to take in all the ancestors and what they got to say; I’m getting all my information from what they’re telling me. All those 100,000 ancestors that have sung like a nightingale . . . I’ve just been through a little bit, but look what my ancestors went through – I’m just a messenger”
Born in Birmingham in 1943, when “It wasn’t nothing to have [ten] chil-dren –sleeping in the same bed – the same bedbugs biting off all of us. But we had love – we didn’t have nothing but the hand of God.”
Minter recalls: “One night about two o’clock, I’m getting ready to graduate (from High School), Bull Conner and the police kicks the door down. There’s my momma, my daddy, my three sisters in there – dragged us out. So you don’t have to tell me about police brutality ‘cause I’ve been through the school of it.”
Minter and his brother were hauled away, and his brother was beaten: “A sight I never will forget – his head like you take up a steak hammer and beat – they tried to beat its eyes out.”
Four years later, in 1965 during the Vietnam War, Joe Minter, who often wears Army jackets and camo pants, was drafted: “I had already told my momma, I won’t be back, cause I ain’t killin’ – They ain’t done nothing to me . . When the firin’ start, I was just gonna let them blow me away. I wasn’t gonna pull the trigger. I would have been on the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall. Hey, I didn’t come here to kill nobody.”
But, the Minter family’s prayers were answered, Joe was assigned to engineering projects in the U.S. and never deployed overseas. “God already knew from birth what I was going to do; he allowed me to get to this point.”
After an honorable discharge, Minter returned to Birmingham. Among oth-er jobs, he worked in an auto body-shop, a metal fabrication factory, and finally, in construction until he retired in 1989. “I asked God back in ’89 to give a story, a complete journey of 500 years of the Africans through the Americas.”
“I’ve been here 30 years and nobody [helped us] – What you see around here is what my wife and me [brought] here from just working for wages that wasn’t fit to work for. Its lots of money (we) put in stuff by going to the flea market, Salvation Army, Goodwill.”
Much of Minter’s work was made in response to current events. When bad things happen, Joe Minter, a self-described “peacemaker” struggles to relieve his mind and heal the world through art. “The African way is God, love, and peace,” he says.
Prior to yearly visits, subjects for new sculptures in the “all the disasters” section of the Village could be anticipated – the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the Sandy Hook massacre, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, the coronavirus. Previously, James Byrd, Jr., 9/11, Hurricane Katrina…were featured.
For Sandy Hook, Minter purchased 20 brand-new brightly colored pairs of children’s shoes to mount – with toes pointing skyward – on vertical boards. Pristine schoolchildren’s backpacks imprinted with fantasy cartoon characters, and small white putti statuettes seated on hard plastic school chairs were among the objects he brought to a composition scattered with plastic doll busts of young girls and topped-off by toy guns.
For Trayvon Martin, two round metal-wire fruit baskets carrying a pair of Black dolls on one side and a pair of white dolls on the other, hung like scales-of-justice from the ends of a horizontal board labeled ‘No•Justice•Why.’ Tilted down on the Black dolls’ sides, a central pillar, spelling-out ‘TRAYVON’ in bold letters, raised the unbalanced scale up over the fence on the street side of the Village.
The Civil Rights history section of the Village has a sculptural recreation of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham jailcell, guarded by three concrete dogs, and fitted with a toilet and stainless steel sink. Black rubber boots and gloves are chained to the bars under a barbed-wire ceiling. Joe says King’s Letter from Bir-mingham Jail “should be displayed in the White House next to the Gettysburg Address.”
Ghostly bent-wire faces, each named and fastened to the back of four seat-less, vintage-brown metal fold-up chairs, represent the young girl victims of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Baptist Church bombing, perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. They sit in pairs on either side of a larger white, almost throne-like, armchair with the adult-proportioned, apparitional wire face of Martin Luther King attached high up on the back. After the explosion, Minter rushed to the scene.
Now, with eyes closed, he recollects: “[I] was down there when the man bombed-up the church. Hole so big, and the undertakers cryin’so hard – (pause) ’cause [they] see the Anglo-Saxon ambulances, they had a fleet of them, wouldn’t pick the Africans up off the street, I don’t care what condition, so they had to wait on the undertaker.”
Driving back in Minter’s small 1990’s hand-painted pickup truck full of protest signs from a 2013 downtown demonstration against the partial closing of a
hospital, he explained to me: “You can take the rainbow and explain a lot of things, because of the way God painted it – you can’t tell where one color meets another – they mingle together. See, man puts a line between colors which divide, and that’s what the problem is. We got to learn how God merges the rainbow col-ors together so we can work together. He gave us that as an example to show eve-rything that’s merged together works together.”
“Nature by the hand of God” also instructs human behavior through the observation of trees: “A tree is made naturally to praise God because the branches are uplifted to praise Him, and the trees dance together and touch each other when God sends the wind: They sayin’ I love you to each other.”
Swaying with the dancing trees in his mind’s eye, he gestures downward, “Under the dirt the trees are holding hands with their roots, and they’re praising for the feel of the soil, on up to the sun, on up to the blossoms and the fruit that God has blessed them.”
“Man would come to a tree with an ax, a chainsaw, and have no mercy while the tree ain’t gonna do nothing but just bow to him,” bowing, Minter con-tinues: “The tree is that polite, they yield up their life to the man, and all they do is bow down. A tree have lived longer than everyone of us ever, ever lived and was still siting there dancing in the wind, and thanking God for the raindrops that hit its leaves”
Since 2000, Minter has carried a thick walking stick adorned with bells, straps, belts, small dolls, keys, and other items he’s picked-up and attached: “I started collecting parts of the street, which is part of the people that is around me. So as I walk, I’m touchin’ you, and you’re touchin’ me with what you had
possessed that is now on the stick.”
Metal rings at the top are “rings of kidnap time. It’s circled into over 400 years.” A dangling chain and small harness represent shackles. Standing about two feet over Minter’s head, it is his Moses staff. The bells jingle as he walks, “That African sound, it touch your heart,” and people look up. “This stick was made to make me visible.”
Although he’s constantly working, Minter says, “I’m at the completion of a 30-year journey to give back to the young folks. My soul is turned to young folk; I’m just a cry in the wilderness. When you sit down with somebody old that have been through it, they ain’t going to tell you the whole story ‘cause you’ll start to cry and couldn’t take it. Young folks, you have to respect your elders because they the ones who have made the path for you to be able to walk where you walk.”
Minter has high praise for the late collector William Arnett’s early recognition and support of his work:“I got a piece over there with Bill begging at the museum doors all over the world to try and get us in.”
In recent years, Minter’s work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Atlanta Contemporary in 2018, the Whitney Biennial in 2019, and March Gallery in New York City in 2021. Through a grant from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the University of Alabama has recently completed extensive drone documentation and is working toward producing an interactive three-dimensional, ground-level virtual recreation, as well as a guided-by-the-artist tour of the site.
Joe Minter hopes his artworks will be preserved as well. “Heaven is my home, I just got an address down here with bills comin’ to my house. Down here when my work is through, I’m headed to what you would call the Twelve Gates. I can see myself walking up there, God lookin’ down and sayin’: ‘I know you, because when you flew I was right there with you; when you fell, I was right there with you; when you cried out and nobody heard you, I heard you. Job well done my son, come on in.
“I’m gonna ask God for just one more favor: Let me have some wings. I want to see how the eagle flies. I want to see how that swan floats through the air. I want to feel it. I want to fly first before I come down and feel those streets of gold.”