To Neil Hall, "Black Art Matters" is as timely as it gets. An established architect and founder of Art Africa Miami, Hall reveals how the meaningful theme for this year's fair was inspired by Kanye West.
"Kanye West made a comment concerning slavery, that 'slavery is a choice.' We have to react to those things... because folks normally disregard the idea that art from our community and our ilk is to the highest level or is worthy of praise."
For the collective team at Art Africa, the Black Art Matters narrative — a compelling play on the international activist movement Black Lives Matter — pushes back against West's later-retracted claim. Counteracting all "stereotypes and ignorances," Art Africa Miami explicitly refutes the celebrity's statement with its 2018 theme: "Black Art Matters: It's Not a Choice."
Born as a pointed response to an absurd, insidious message by a controversy-ridden superstar, this year's theme highlights the artists of Art Africa and the deep exploration of black oppression in their work.
For those who live in the historically black neighborhood of Overtown, including Hall, this year's Art Basel is also a time to consider the burgeoning blossom of that community into one of Miami's hot spots. The architect is ready to put Overtown on the map. "We believe that art, design, culture, creativity, and confidence can transform marginalized spaces such as deprived neighborhoods... We want to show that using art, we as a people can transform our space, just like South Beach and Wynwood have done."
They've come a long way in eight years. When Hall founded Art Africa Miami in 2011, the international art festival was entirely lacking representation. Back then, Basel was a stomping ground for the white and the rich. "It was pathetic. We were not even considered," he recalls. Nowadays, Art Africa is one of the multiple fairs devoted to promoting and displaying artwork by black artists. The fair, the largest showcase of contemporary artists from the African diaspora during Art Basel, is joined by "AfriCOBRA: Messages to the People," an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; Prizm Art Fair; "Art of Black: Umbrellas of Little Havana," an installation displaying umbrellas painted by local artists; and Pigment International's series of exhibits and activities spotlighting black artists in the Art of Black initiative promoted by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Hall credits city commissioners and the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency for the more inclusive scene during Art Week. According to the Art Africa founder, they have been staunch supporters of Overtown's art. Additional praise goes to the convention and visitors bureau, which clocked the power of the movement early on. "They created the Art of Black as a marketing instrument," explains Hall. "And encouraged visitors all over the world to come and see Miami's creative spaces."
The latest development in the growth of Overtown's cultural footprint has been national university involvement. "This year we have lured the Hampton Art Lovers to Overtown," Hall explains. "Hampton is a historically black university that has the largest collection of Elizabeth Catlett's work." Art Africa hopes future Art Weeks will bring even more universities and other national bodies to Overtown. "We see this movement and we hope that the rest can begin to participate in the change."
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Hampton's Art Lovers is one of many events and performances manifesting the meaning of "Black Art Matters." Thirty-five black artists hailing from Nigeria, Haiti, Trinidad, Honduras, the Republic of Gambia, Colombia, Germany, and the U.S. will be on display this week in a round of Art Africa exhibits narrowing in on culture, fashion, art, film, and community in Overtown.
Still, there's substantial room to further improve Art Basel's representation of black artists and members of the African diaspora. Hall believes that the combined power of artists and community members should be recognized. With it, he asserts, Overtown can become what it's intended to be: a creative hub. "We can be our own gentrifiers. We don't have to have others come in to give us credence and say, 'It's safe now to come into Overtown.' We have to believe in that and do it ourselves," says Hall.
In the meantime, the effects of organizations like Art Africa can be seen throughout Miami's art scene. "This year, Nigeria is on the block. All over Basel, in every major sphere, there are black participants, black artists, black performers, black curators. And that's something that was not possible eight years ago."