Every December, millions of people converge onto Miami for Art Basel. For years, artists from the African Diaspora were excluded from being prominently showcased. Eight years ago, architect Neil Hall decided to do something about it. He launched Art Africa Miami Arts Fair in 2011.
“Neil saw that there was no representation of artists from the African Diaspora and he said that was a problem,” said Yvette Harris, Hall’s publicist for Art Africa.
The fair grew from being in a tent the first year and containers the second year to making use of spaces in historic Overtown that were either still under construction or being underutilized. The purpose: to shed light on the beauty of the community.
Over the years, multiple events highlighting Black artists sprang up thanks to Hall’s lead. Today, Black Basel events are among the most anticipated of the multi-pronged fair. Even the fairs on Miami Beach have included more Black artists in their showcases. It is something Hall is extremely proud of.
“As a result of what we have done, Miami’s historic African-American or heritage communities all have art in them at this time,” Hall said. “We have created over 14 different art spaces as a result. Little Haiti, Opa-Locka, Liberty City, Coconut Grove and, of course Overtown are all participating, so it’s a big deal for us to see that.”
The artists who’ve been given an opportunity to showcase their work are indebted to Hall and his team, which is composed of volunteers from an array of racial and cultural backgrounds.
Tracy Guiteau, 34, is a visual artist and fashion designer from Miami who said she’s been creating since she was in third grade. A newbie to the Art Africa showcase, Guiteau said having two paintings on display gives her the chance to inspire others.
“Each piece is basically a diary of everyday life, my journey and everything, so throughout the paintings you’ll also find hidden words,” Guiteau said. “I want people to know art is still important. Without it, I would not be here. When I can’t find the words to express myself, my paintings speak for me. I’m more comfortable expressing myself that way.”
Trinidadian-born Miles Regis is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. His works – which span visual arts, music, fashion and more – have been displayed every year at Art Africa since it’s inception. He said it is his favorite fair to participate in.
“I’m totally proud to be a part of this. I do the other art fairs as well … and this is the one place that I’m always most proud to send my collectors. It’s a cohesive, powerful reflection of us,” Regis said.
He encouraged artists who have yet to be displayed to avoid quitting. With fairs like Art Africa, their time may soon come, he said.
“Keep doing what you’re doing and give it your best. I’m never discouraged. It’s one thing to say that, but to firmly believe that you have a voice and that what you’re saying is relevant and important is another. I believe that once you create from a place of truth, it always rises to the surface,” Regis said.
Hall said artists like Regis epitomize what Art Africa is all about – providing exposure that will help them grow their crafts and audiences, while still giving back to their native communities.
“I am humbled because the artists who have supported us from day one continue to support us. … In 2020, we start a new chapter. I am also pleased with some of the artists that have graduated to another plateau, which I think is a testimony to us,” Hall said.
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Art Africa ran from Dec. 3-8 this year and included a mix of art and events that drew people who may not normally frequent Overtown to Miami’s pioneer heritage community.
It was also the impetus for the Southeast Overtown/Park West (SEOPW) Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) “Soul Basel” and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitor’s Bureau’s “Art of Black Miami” initiatives. Both aim to expose tourists and residents to Black art in Miami.
Neil Shiver is the executive director for the SEOPW CRA. He said Hall deserves all the recognition he is receiving.
“The progress has just been tremendous,” Shiver said. “Neil Hall should get all the credit for some of the initial projects and now today Soul Basel has grown beyond Art Africa, servicing Black art and Black artists all in preparation of where we’re taking Overtown as a business and entertainment district.”
Though Art Africa and Soul Basel have ended, patrons can still view Hank Willis Thomas’ “All Power To All People” sculpture, located at 920 NW 2 Avenue through Feb. 2, 2020. They can also learn about Black Miami’s rich history year-round at The Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida in Overtown.
For Hall, all of it is a confirmation of the power attached to he and his team’s decision to not just recognize a problem, but also provide a solution.
“It’s a win-win for our community as Black people; it’s a win-win for our community as creatives; and it’s a win-win for our community as a culture. Today, the African aesthetic and African artists are a big deal in Basel and it has only occurred because we pushed to make sure we were included,” Hall said.