Some Miami residents may be as inclined to visit Liberty City as they are to visit Timbuktu. Artist Marvin Weeks hopes to change that. This Friday Weeks, with 25 area artists, craftspeople, and vendors, will make a bid to revitalize the neighborhood with the Timbuktu African & Caribbean Marketplace. "There are treasures here people don't know about," he says. "As an artist I want to be an ambassador, to represent our culture in ways that will appeal not just to the black community."
Walking through the empty courtyard of the Martin Luther King, Jr., building at the corner of NW 62nd Street and 7th Avenue, Weeks waves his arms through the air, conjuring the sights and sounds of a bustling village. "Here we'll have African carts for the vendors selling jewelry and crafts," he explains. "Back there we'll have the stage where Carib Tribe will play soul, jazz, and reggae. Over here we'll have storytelling for the children, and over there a puppet show."
Timbuktu may well mean the other side of the world for most people in the United States. For Africans though, Weeks points out, "Timbuktu was a commercial and religious center during the ancient empire of Mali. It was a place where Arabs, Europeans, and Africans all came together to trade and to share their cultures. That's what we want to do here, to bring together Miami's ethnic communities." A native of the Sea Islands, which are located off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, Weeks learned firsthand that promoting a community's culture can pay off big: "The Gullah culture where I grew up brought tourists in, opening the economy for everybody. That's what we want to do in Liberty City: develop a tourist-type market."
In the gallery adjacent to the courtyard, three women prepare for the market, generating a prodigious energy, which might in itself prove a powerful attraction. Like their spiritual sisters, the market women of Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali, vendor Phyllis LeConte, activist Dahia Ah-Kahina, and artist Queenchiku Ngozi mix sentiment with salesmanship and business with philosophy. LeConte, who sells traditional African and Caribbean clothing, pauses to observe while demonstrating the nineteen ways to wear a sarong: "There's knowledge bouncing off these walls." Images of women as strong and brown as tree trunks stretch across Ngozi's oversize canvases, reaching skyward. "She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders," Ah-Kahina says, "and yet she can still stay connected to the ground." The ability of the community to keep striving despite adversity is what has driven the artists and the vendors to create their own version of Timbuktu. A little bit of that spirit will sit well in anyone's stocking.