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Overtown Participates In Art Basel On A Grand Scale

"F053" by Olalekan Jeyifous (Art Africa Miami Arts Fair)

Overtown artists have participated in Art Basel with showings and events in the neighborhood in past years. However, this is the second year that the neighborhood participates on a grander scale.

Art Africa Miami Arts Fair presents works from 76 artists in an 8,000-square-foot space including a large air-conditioned tent.

Another exhibition at the historic Ward Rooming House Gallery, showcases local artists like Earnest King, as well as the late Oscar Thomas and Purvis Young. That exhibition is curated by Timothy Barber of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, founder of The Black Archives in Overtown, remembers seeing Young painting when she walked home from school at Booker T. Washington Senior High:

We would laugh at him painting there. I got to talk with him later, a couple of years before his death, and I told him that story. He said 'Well, I would laugh back at you all because I knew one day I would be famous.' 

Young's art is now collected and exhibited all over the world; Fields is proud of her connection to the artist.

Fields is also proud of the connection of the Art Africa grounds with the legacy of Overtown's cultural past. The tent stands where Overtown businessman Willie Watkins built a mini-resort and tennis court in the 1930s.  

Throughout the early part of the 20th Century, when segregation was the law and blacks were forbidden from living with whites,  Overtown was a thriving, energetic hub of black cultural life, arts, entrepreneurship. Performers like Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Sam Cooke sang at the downtown night clubs throughout the years.


A recording of Sam Cooke playing at the Harlem Square Club in Overtown in 1963 (from the album, Live at the Harlem Square Club).  

Part of the neighborhood was razed to build I-95, transforming the neighborhood, decimating the population, destroying homes and eradicating many small businesses.

Dr. Fields views Art Basel events such as Art Africa, organized by people from the black community, as part of the transformation of Overtown:

It's like many other cities. It is neglected, taking shape, with the--and this is very important--expertise of the grandchildren of the ancestors. And I think the ancestors would be very happy to know that their entrepreneurship is being repeated by others in the lineage.

Haiti Red Mask by Carl Juste.jpg

Art Africa organizers estimate they had 2,000 visitors last year. This year they expect more. The fair showcases the work of 76 artists from the African Diaspora, up from 23 last year.  The fair is organized by Miami architect Neil Hall, who also owns The Urban Collective, a Midtown Miami design store that sells mostly hand-crafted art objects from Africa.

"The genesis of the project was our response to the fact that we saw very few African-represented artists during Basel," says Mikhaile Solomon, assistant producer of Art Africa, "so we wanted to create a forum for people from the Diaspora. We wanted the satellite fair to fill a void."