By TREVOR FRASER
“One looks to history for the feel of time or its purgative effects; one looks through history for its signs of renewal,” wrote Toni Morrison in her 1996 essay “The Future of Time.” As University of Central Florida Philosophy and Humanities professor Kristin Congdon points out, one could also look through art for the same.
Congdon is the guest curator for “Power, Myth and Memory in Africana Art,” a new exhibit opening Jan. 31 at both Crealdé School of Art and Hannibal Square Heritage Center in Winter Park. Drawn from the collection of local art collector C.J. Williams, the dual-venue show is meant to connect viewers to the stories of the African diaspora.
This exhibit isn’t alone. As we enter Black History Month, five Orange County institutions — Crealdé and Hannibal Square, the Orlando Museum of Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College and the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville — are featuring presentations of the African, Caribbean and African-American narratives.
Through paintings, sculpture and performances, this uncoordinated plethora of converging exhibits gives the community different angles of the past, present and future of black America.
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
Cornell Fine Arts Museum started things off earlier this month with “African Apparel: Threaded Transformations Across the 20th Century.” Rollins alumnus Norma Canelas Roth and her husband, Williams, loaned the museum dozens of pieces of African garments and textiles.
“I am aware that the general public doesn’t know much about Africa,” said MacKenzie Moon Ryan, associate professor of Art History at Rollins College and curator of the exhibit. “It’s a nice way to introduce students and the public to the artistry and creativity that comes out of Africa.”
Each piece is identified by its region with extensive information about its creation, use and the history behind it. “You can step back and look at the visual splendor, but then you can learn more,” said Ryan.
The educational components give an idea about the diversity within Africa. “We wanted things from across the continent, just to give you an idea that this is a huge continent,” said Ryan.
The exhibit also explores the intersectional connections between gender, labor and use. “The production of these items of apparel relies on both genders,” said Ryan. Some of the items are created exclusively by men and some by women, or sometimes individual components come from one gender and are added to components by another, even if only one gender would actually wear the garment.[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] Departing United Arts after 8 years, Flora Maria Garcia retires ‘on a high note’ »
Ryan first conceived of an exhibit of African artifacts five years ago. “When I joined the faculty [at Rollins], I came with an interest in objects from the Western world,” she said. Working with two students, Morgan Snoap and Cristina Toppin, she set out to create a scholarly showcase that would demonstrate the technical mastery of African textiles.
“These objects are lived in and loved,” said Ryan. She notes a pair of sandals in the exhibit that show signs of wear. “These really show that an individual wore these and they were personal property.”
While the objects are from Africa, Ryan believes the pieces will still be recognizable in some ways to African-Americans. “I think members of the African diaspora can recognize symbols that they do know,” she said. She notes many of the pieces had elements that appeared in American fashion movements related to black pride. “Giving the longer history of these pieces doesn’t negate anything the diaspora can take from their history. I hope that it’s a lovely way to come face to face with these objects from Africa.”
Orlando Museum of Art
Closer to home, Orlando Museum of Art is hosting its first-ever display of Highwaymen art. “Living Color: The Art of the Highwaymen” features 100 works by the African-American group of artists who began painting and selling Florida landscape scenes beginning in the 1950s.
Curator Gary Monroe, who wrote the book “The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters” in 2001, brought together five collectors to share pieces they felt exemplified the style and talents of the artists. “I wanted the collectors to really have a say in what got shown,” said the DeLand resident.
The Highwaymen, named by art historian Jim Fitch in the 1990s, were a loose collective of black painters started by artists Harold Newton and Alfred Hair. They painted vibrant, typically wild or rural scenes from the Fort Pierce area where they were based and sold their paintings throughout the state by going directly to doctors’ offices and motels.
For many years, their work was regarded by the academic art world as a kind of kitsch, but Doretha Hair Truesdell, Alfred’s widow who is also a painter, always saw the work as fine art. “My take it on all of it is that art is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “The colors aren’t muted. They are so full of life. Even after all these years, they still breathe the same life.”
Those colors are front and center in this exhibit, which prominently features works by Alfred Hair, Newton and nine others who formed the core group of the enterprise. Devoid of context, a viewer might simply assume these were a translation of Post-Impressionist theories brought to Florida. In fact, in one area of the museum, one can see a Highwayman painting practically side-by-side with Belgian painter Louis Dewis, and the works appear to be close cousins of each other.[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] Departing United Arts after 8 years, Flora Maria Garcia retires ‘on a high note’ »
What is less apparent in the art itself is the struggle The Highwaymen endured as black artists living in the segregated South. Career options for the artists were limited. “If you didn’t get a job working as a teacher, you would work in the field,” said Hair Truesdell, who lives in the house she and Alfred bought in Fort Pierce.
Painting was a way of escaping those limitations, though it came with its own set of stressors. “We had to sell direct,” said Hair Truesdell. “We had to paint more, we had to paint faster, we had to sell more and we had to sell it at a price that people would buy.”
Much of the art selected here includes scenes from black life in Florida, such as one of Eddie’s Place, the bar where Alfred Hair was shot and killed in a brawl. Yet the paintings depict chores, fishing and idle days as serene as the natural settings.
For Hair Truesdell, seeing an institution such as the Orlando Museum of Art devote an exhibit to Highwaymen paintings is an acknowledgment of the talent she always saw. “It’s a validation of what we did and we started so many years ago now being recognized in major museums,” she said. “We just couldn’t do that. There wasn’t someplace we could take our work to show.”
Crealdé School of Art/Hannibal Square Heritage Center
Many of the works in “Power, Myth and Memory” were also never before shown on gallery or museum walls. Andrew Browne, a docent with Hannibal Square Heritage Center who will lead an artists’ panel later in the exhibit’s run, said symbols in these pieces indicate they were created for an insular audience, not the artworld at large. “Black artists would paint things that they knew but infuse a lot of symbolism where it was meant for them to see and appreciate,” he said. “They didn’t feel that other audiences would view or appreciate it as fine art.”
But the reasons for keeping these works hidden inside private homes goes deeper than a community connection or lack of appreciation in some cases. Art was a sign of wealth, and African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century were often frightened of being too opulent. “Art was something you had to hide,” said Browne. “You could not show because something like [the Tulsa massacre of 1921] would happen. Someone would come and burn down your house.”
Indeed, one of the original inspirations for putting on this show was learning about the similar Ocoee massacre, which will see its ignominious centennial in November. The carnage took place over two days in which mobs of white paramilitary forces attacked the black residents of Ocoee, burning 20 buildings, lynching activist July Perry, forcing 500 residents to flee and killing an untold number of black citizens. Estimates range as high as 60 deaths.
Congdon formed a group, the Alliance for Truth and Justice, to educate people about the racial history of Central Florida. They have worked with the Orange County History Center on an exhibit about the massacre that will open in August.[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] Epcot performer Adam Jacobs keeps ‘Aladdin’ close to his heart »
But those days of horror do not tell a complete story about the lives of African-Americans in the South, according to Congdon. “Because our group didn’t want 2020 to simply portray African-Americans as victims, we decided to counter that image with other programming that demonstrates the resilience of black people and the richness of their culture,” she said.
While the works are not related specifically to the population of Central Florida or the time period of the massacre, the idea is to evoke the artistic traditions that have informed black culture throughout the century.
“The theme is perseverance to get out their view of the world,” said C.J. Williams who provided the collection for this exhibit. “Despite the fact that they were on the edge of the art community, they still captured the essence of what they captured in the world.”
Browne sees the title of the exhibit as literal. “As viewers come through, they’ll be able to see the power of black culture, the myth and mysticism behind voodoo and Haitian artwork that’s shown and the memory of African-American life,” he said.[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] Orlando Ballet collects millions on wave of new-building excitement »
Bringing this art — which ranges from African and Haitian statues to paintings from the 1990s — into institutional spaces is a positive sign to Browne. “It makes art more participatory,” he said. “That’s the value of showing art from a collector who appreciated it. They get to see the art respected.”
Congdon hopes this attracts audiences of all different backgrounds. “For black people, I hope they see themselves in the artwork that memorializes and celebrate their various cultural experiences,” she said. “For others, my wish is that they can appreciate both the struggle and the exceptional ability of these artists to find joy and meaning in their lives through power, myth and memory.”
Browne also wants people to focus on the creation of the art as they would any other exhibit. “I hope people can see the fine art details behind each of the artists, but also see the symbolism that someone was trying to create, similar to the way one would interpret a Van Gogh or one of the more well-known artists,” he said.
Zora Festival of the Arts and Humanities
While these exhibits tie into the history of the black experience, Zora Fest is putting its eye on the future, sort of.[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] ‘Anne of Green Gables’ still holds magic for adults »
Afrofuturism is the theme for this year’s celebration of author Zora Neale Hurston and the history of Eatonville. The term, coined in 1993 by writer Mark Dery, refers to African concepts of science fiction and technology. The 31st annual edition of the heritage festival will feature artistic displays on the subject, educational experiences and a masquerade party.
“Afrofuturism is the thoughts and creative processes related to an afro-centric view of future societies but also contemporary societies,” said Julian Chambliss. The former Rollins professor now teaches classes on Afrofuturism and culture at Michigan State University. He was one member of the group who helped decide this year’s theme.
Most people are familiar with Afrofuturism through works such as the Marvel movie “Black Panther,” which imagines a technologically advanced African civilization devoid of colonialism. Other examples include the sci-fi mythos of the band Parliament-Funkadelic and the electronic experimental jazz of Sun Ra.
“I want people to leave with a little bit more of a grasp of Afrofuturism,” said Zora Fest executive director N.Y. Nathiri. “And that includes me.”[Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com] ‘Men on Boats’: Torrents of fun on adventure of a lifetime | Review »
Like all science fiction, Afrofuturism functions not only as a speculation about the future but as commentary on present circumstances and historic influences. “Think about modernity from the perspective of the African diaspora,” said Chambliss. “The way they think about race and power might be different from their white counterparts.”
But there is another way this topic is part of a forward-looking thought process. Zora Fest plans its festival themes in cycles of five years. As such, Afrofuturism is planned to be the focus until 2024. “How do you make it fresh? How to make it resonate for younger people?” asked Nathiri. “I think for us as an institution, [Afrofuturism] really does let a burst of intellectual energy into the festival.”
For Eatonville, Zora Fest is an economic driver, one that requires investment from the local community, but which pays off in dividends. “We have data of the group tours that come through that have nothing to do with the festival,” said Nathiri. “They’re going to Disney, they’re going to Universal, but they come here.”
With the reopening of the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts on Kennedy Boulevard, Nathiri sees a bourgeoning way to support Eatonville. “The money is there,” she said. “So for a community like Eatonville that is low socioeconomically but has this rich, authentic cultural heritage resource, there’s a niche market.