History of Black Art in Miami

Artwork by Eve Wright
Artwork by Eve Wright

By: Gene Tinnie

Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate the Art of Black Miami, and its particular historical, social, cultural, and even spiritual significance in this 14th year of Art Basel Week is to do so by inserting a comma into that title, as a way of recognizing that there are actually two very interesting stories here.

There is, on the one hand, the implicit recognition that there is a unique phenomenon or aesthetic which can be called “The Art of Black,” or Black Art, the Art of Blackness, the Art of Black people, the Art of Being Black, or, more simply and comprehensively, the Art of the African World (Africa and the global Diaspora).

On the other hand, there is also the particular story of this unique cultural presence in Miami, Florida’s remarkable mushrooming visual arts scene, and especially during that heady week of early December when art lovers and collectors from around the world converge on this subtropical city to experience what promises, as much from sheer quantity as from quality, the latest and best of what the Art World has to offer in 2016.

These two stories can be said to represent two interactive perspectives, one from the inside looking out – that of the actual art producers and their purpose in being such, and one from the outside looking in – that of the viewers, appreciators, and the “business of art.” These two have the potential of coming to a very interesting, even exciting, and mutually profitable meeting in this special place and time.

Yet, for all of its potential, this meeting of these two cultural experiences has been slow to come to fruition during the evolution of the annual frenzy of Art Basel Week, virtually passing like ships in the night early on, when the Black presence, and interest in it, appeared to be very limited at best, but, after repeated crossings, it is now fair to say that a palpable sense of steady progress and reciprocal benefit can be discerned, and not least in recent years because this process has been greatly facilitated by the notable efforts of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) as an active player in bringing much-needed visibility to the various African World art exhibition venues during this most propitious time.

What we are witnessing from these two perspectives is a dual drama: of increasing inclusion of Black art and artists in world-class settings (essentially one more iteration of the continuing struggle for equality and justice, this time on the art and culture front), and at the same time a substantial enhancement of Miami’s art scene on the world stage by presenting an artistic idiom which brings something very unique and substantial to the trading table.

Although long maligned, discredited, and dismissed within the U.S. for all of the well-known historic and political reasons, Black art and culture has an almost equally long history of broad global appreciation, acclaim, and support, a factor of no small significance to the success of this annual international celebration of creativity.

Perhaps the most emblematic expression of this burgeoning symbiosis came in the year that the grand entrance to the Art Basel festival at Miami Beach Convention Center was through a dramatic monumental archway lined with works by Miami’s arguably most unique artist, the late uber-prolific “outsider” painter Purvis Young: Welcome, art lovers of the world, to Miami, via an original visual art experience unlike any anywhere else on earth, which happens to be of homegrown African American origin; now you are fully prepared to appreciate all the rest of what the Art Basel experience promises.

From the “art business” perspective, this bold gesture also embodied, of course, the aspirational effect of heightening the monetary value of Purvis’s works for those who had the astute perspicacity to invest in them (and, by implication, calling attention to other Miami African World artists), but it is equally significant that the primary motives for Purvis’s creations in his unique trademark style were quite at the polar opposite from monetary profit-making, wherein lies, ironically, much of their appeal to the world marketplace.

Space does not allow for a lengthy attempt to explain the source of that appeal, but it might suffice to say that In this respect Purvis Young quintessentially representative of a key aspect of the whole of the phenomenon we know as African World Art, and the whole spectrum of producers from his fellow self-taught “outsider” and “folk” artists to the most sophisticated, academically trained practitioners, including those who are indeed commercially motivated, all of whom, in varying degrees, consciously or unconsciously, carry on a timeless tradition that merits at least a brief acknowledgement, because its place in past, present, and future history is much more significant than its market value alone might suggest.

It is not surprising, and it is necessary, in the scheme of things, to acknowledge that the foundations of Black Art production today are rooted in ancient and timeless African Ancestral traditions and purposes. (What may be more remarkable is that this wisdom has survived as it has.) Those traditions typically did not even have a distinct word for “art,” because creativity is so integral to, and inseparable from all of life’s activities, inclusive of Ancestors and Future Generations, serving to awaken our consciousness of the deepest, worldless truths of our place in the universe.

That grandiose idea is probably most readily familiar to us today in the African American classical music form known as “jazz,” or its sacred counterpart of gospel music, which embody truth-seeking and truth speaking through spontaneous “composing on stage,” through technical prowess and excellence as well as an openness to “feel the spirit.” (Small wonder that the ever-growing Cultural Heritage tourism sector makes Jazz concerts and Black church services quasi-obligatory on tours of the U.S. by foreign visitors, as the most authentic of American experiences to be had.)

It is equally important to note the finer point that, far from being simply forced responses or reactions to slavery and oppression, although that is an important dimension not to be ignored, it is primarily the proactive, positive, life-affirming quality of these modalities of artistic expression that has earned “The Art of Black,” as it might collectively be called, the near-universal genuine appeal, influence, and appreciation that it has come to command on a global scale. (We might consider the impact of the tastes of African American urban youth on the international fashion scene, for example.)

In light of all of this, we are all the more appreciative of both the opportunity bringing “The Art of Black” to higher awareness, and profitability, than ever, to residents and visitors alike, in Miami in 2016, particularly in four highlighted venues:

Amadlozi Gallery, at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (NW 62nd Street) at NW 22nd Avenue (official address: 6161 NW 22nd Ave., Miami, FL 33142), enters its fifth decade as an inspirational force in the community, both producing and being visited by national celebrities, on a strong note with an exhibition of two world-class photographers (details forthcoming), from the last two weeks of November through December.

Information: 305-638-6771


KROMA Art Gallery, located near the historic birthplace of the Black Arts Movement in Miami, at in Coconut Grove, at 3560 Grand Avenue, 33133, near Douglas Rd. (SW 37th Ave.), presents KROMA Spectra: Urban Art Intensity, a full and ambitious schedule of activities during Miami Art Week in addition to its ongoing installation “The Force,” a stark visual commentary on policing in the age of #Black Lives Matter:

  • A November 30 reception with eminent artist, collector, critic, historian, and author Dr. David C. Driskell, from 9:00 p.m. to midnight, following his lecture presentation at the Pérez Art Museum;
  • An exhibition of works on paper by Harlem Renaissance masters from Dr. Driskell’s collection (opening on Nov. 10).
  • “3 the Art Way”: Art, Food, Music & Theater; and
  • “The Shift: Animated Multimedia Street Art Experience.”
  • Information: 305-446-5150, www.kromamiami.com


    Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212-260 NE 59th Terrace, 33137 and the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance present two major events:
  • Art Beat Miami, November 30 - December 4, featuring multidisciplinary works emerging and renowned Haitian and other African World Artists, with music, food, special events. Information: 305-306-7521, 305-908-3724; info@artbeatmiami.com; www.artbeatmiami.com.
  • Borderless Caribbean: Liquid Knowledges,” November 30, 2016 – February 28, 2017, an innovative exhibition centered around the fascinating topic and rich traditions of ethnobotany, combining scholarly presentations with “The Garden of Mysteries and Botany of Memory and Experience”: contemporary works by Caribbean and Miami-based artists in dialogue, and “Antillean Lacunae: A Litany of the Botanical,” a multi-sensory, multimedia exhibition.
  • Information: 305-960-2969, Kenta Joseph; kjoseph@miamigov.com; www.haitianculturalartsalliance.org.
    The ARC (Arts & Recreation Center), 676 Ali Baba Avenue, 33054, in the heart of historic downtown Opa-Locka, a rapidly emerging inspired art venue which has featured numerous world-class artists and authorities presents “Say It Loud!,” from November 10 through January 22 , a multimedia exhibition featuring Michael Paul Britto, Myra Greene, Joshua R. McFadden, Mario Pfeiffer, and Roberto Visani, in its The Art of Transformation series.

    Information: 305-687-3545; www.opalockaart.com.


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