Community Voices

Black in Time: African-American visual artists added soul to Art Basel

Art of Black Event: Art of Transformation Kick off Event in Opa Locka, In Plain Sight Opening Reception. L-R: Graylyn Swilley- Woods, interim VP GMCVB Multicultural Department; Renee Cox, Artist, Carole Ann Taylor, GMCVB Board Heritage Committee Chair; and Petra Brennan, GMCVB Multicultural Department standing in front of artwork by Renee Cox.
Art of Black Event: Art of Transformation Kick off Event in Opa Locka, In Plain Sight Opening Reception. L-R: Graylyn Swilley- Woods, interim VP GMCVB Multicultural Department; Renee Cox, Artist, Carole Ann Taylor, GMCVB Board Heritage Committee Chair; and Petra Brennan, GMCVB Multicultural Department standing in front of artwork by Renee Cox. GMCVB

During mostly sunny days and star lit nights Art Basel 2014 held Dec. 3-7 in Miami showcased some of the world’s most outstanding visual artists.

Known as the premier art show for modern and contemporary works, Art Basel takes place annually in three different cities: Basel, Switzerland, in June; Miami Beach in December; and Hong Kong in March.

Originating in 1970 in Switzerland, the first show brought together gallery owners, collectors and art professionals to see the finest 20th century art from around the world. In 2001, the first Miami Beach show met the organizers expectations by premiering in the world’s new favorite winter meeting place with unique experiences as well as lots of sun, www.artbasel.com.

According to the international organizers, each city has a geographical location situating it at the crossroads of a continent. As a result, the character and culture of the entire region is intended to influence each show. Equally important, Art Basel’s presence in the cities is intended to generate a wide variety of concurrent exhibitions, museum shows and other cultural events.

In Miami, artists outside of the Art Basel inner circle organized across the railroad tracks. Visual artist Marvin Weeks joined Gene Tinnie, Ernest King, Kuumba, and other regional artists who wanted to mount an exhibition in Overtown. The only available venue was the original Lyric Theater.

As the volunteer Lyric Theater manager at that time, I was skeptical because the lobby was extremely small and there was no gallery. Eventually plans were finalized and the exhibition drew considerable community interest. The following year with funding from Miami’s SEOPW CRA artists exhibited in an un-air-conditioned tent located on the north side of the theater where the lobby, Welcome Center, plaza, and the Black Archives’ office building now reside.

The rest is history. In the 20th century, Overtown was nationally known for featuring African-American performing artists and celebrities in nightclubs at the Mary Elizabeth, Sir John and other hotels. In the first decade of the 21st century, historic Overtown began to celebrate the work’s of regional African-American visual artists adding soul to Art Basel.

Leading the charge for change was architect and organizer Neil Hall, president of The Urban Collective, a group of artists of African descent dedicated to the advancement of local African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean artists. In 2011, for Art Basel’s 10th anniversary, they hosted an elaborate installation of contemporary African Art sponsored by Miami’s SEOPW CRA.

Staged in a 5,000-square-foot, hard-sided, fully enclosed air-conditioned tent, the exhibition paid homage to the African Diaspora’s artistic contributions to the modern world. The catalog featured 21 professional artists who in the Art Basel tradition produce and sell their art. The Urban Collective also introduced Art Africa Miami Arts Fair (AAMAF), a juried multidisciplinary exhibition of fine contemporary art from the global African Diaspora.

Located in the Historic Overtown Folklife Village, Northwest Second Avenue from 8th to 10th streets, the exhibition tent was connected by a few steps to Folk Life Fridays, a monthly open-air market, arts & crafts and food fair created and operated by New Washington Heights CDC on the Ninth Street Pedestrian Mall.

The next several years, Overtown emerged as an Art Basel satellite fair. It is a collaboration of Miami’s SEOPW CRA, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, The Urban Collective, and The Black Archives/Lyric Theater. Shop, Dine and Explore was the theme. Original works of local artists were exhibited in the nearby historic Ward Rooming House Cultural Tourist Gallery, 949 NW Ninth St. At the evening reception patrons strolled back and forth from the exhibition tent to the Ward Gallery following lanterns on a guided path.

In 2014, in place of the exhibition tent, the fine artwork of 20 contemporary artists from the Global African Diaspora was shown around the corner in a storefront transformed into a gallery at the Carver Building, 801 NW Third Ave. The evening reception included two artists painting and live mannequins modeling among the art.

Under the starry sky, patrons strolled back and forth from the Carver to the historic Lyric Theater. The theater’s new lobby and Welcome Center were transformed into a gallery showcasing the works of regional artists and featured Overtown’s urban expressionist artist, Purvis Young. In a salon-style exhibition, approximately 200 pieces representing his work were exhibited from collections owned by The Black Archives of South Florida and the Bass Museum of Art on Miami Beach.

This year’s initiatives included students from the Overtown Youth Coalition’s Art Program participating with local artist Chivas Davis in a community mural paint party at the Old Clyde Killen’s Pool Hall located at 920 NW Second Ave.; and children from the Carver building painting on panels.

Another initiative, “The Art of Black Miami” launched by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), was introduced at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. This initiative presents a new platform spotlighting local, national and international aspiring and renown artists. Continuing year-round, it is a celebration of the abundant artistic diversity found within Miami’s mosaic neighborhoods including Coconut Grove, Little Haiti, North Miami and Opa-locka.

At each Art Basel event, Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon passionately spoke of Historic Overtown Soul Basel as a vehicle for promoting our community’s history and culture, the investment of Miami SEOPW CRA and the need to continue attracting tourists. To that end, local organizers will soon begin planning satellite events for Art Basel Miami weekend, Dec. 3-6, 2015. Mark your calendar and watch for upcoming announcements, community participation in these events is enthusiastically encouraged.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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