Timothy Adebule paced through Three Masks near downtown Orlando on a recent Tuesday, prepping the gallery for evening activities. An African drumming class would soon be getting underway in one room, and a capoeira lesson in another. Adebule shuttled chairs past a wall of Ivorian masks and bright-colored feathered caps from Cameroon, practically disappearing behind a row of wood-carved Guinean statues. The 6,000-square-foot storefront off West Colonial Drive is a bustling commercial gallery most days and a community center on others. But for owner Adebule, it has adopted a greater function in Orlando: as a metaphorical museum of Afro-diasporic history.
"These are not just idols or figures," he says, eyeing his vast collection from West Africa. "These are stories."
For more than 20 years, Three Masks has served as Orlando's only Black-owned, self-sustaining commercial art gallery dedicated to telling and preserving the Diaspora's stories. Adebule opened the gallery in 1996 as a small storefront near what is now the Amway Center. He described the Black arts scene, at the time, as laid-back and ... "How do I use the word?" he asks. "Backwards." Adebule remembers a greatly fragmented Black arts community, marked mainly by the Zora Neale Hurston Festival for the Arts and two shops owned by Kenyans who sold wood carvings from their regions.
"I'd usually see others – white Americans – having African stores," Adebule remembers. "And I'm saying 'Shouldn't we be the ones to tell our stories?'"
Initially, Three Masks drew Orlando residents and mostly white tourists. Disney's creation of Animal Kingdom, he says, gave his gallery more visibility, transforming it into a visible hub for African culture. He sold authentic African fabrics, essential oils, incense, shea butter, black soap and became, unofficially, a cultural ambassador.
"Are you sure you're from Africa?" Adebule, a London-born Nigerian, remembers people would ask him. "They'd never seen anybody from Africa before," he says, laughing.
Today, Adebule is no longer an anomaly but, rather, part of a growing number of Black Americans offering traditional and innovative experiences with Black-created art in Central Florida. In West Oaks Mall, a shop called Evelyn's Creations boasts a sizable collection of African American art, jewelry and clothing. Bronze Kingdom, located in Fashion Square Mall, calls its gallery "Orlando's best kept secret," with more than 2,000 bronze pieces from throughout the continent on display, along with paintings and sculptures from Orlando-based artists.
Rawlvan Bennett, owner of Bronze Kingdom, made a calculated decision to open his gallery in Orlando. He began amassing a collection of more than 4,000 signature African bronze pieces 40 years ago. "I was looking for a way to connect to my African heritage," he tells me during an interview one afternoon at his 16,000-square-foot gallery in the Fashion Square Mall.
He remembers picking up his first mask at a fair in Los Angeles and, slowly, building up his collection with the intent to bring others closer to their heritage through art viewing and buying. "I figured that a lot of other African Americans would want to do the same thing," he says. "That they wanted that reconnection."
Bennett began traveling to Africa in 2000 and eventually settled in Johannesburg for seven years, where his software technology company is headquartered. But for him, Orlando represented a smart base for his collection, whose pieces range from $200 to more than $1 million.
"The world comes to Orlando," he says. "I wanted to be in a place where I could get these wonderful artifacts seen."
Similar to Three Masks, Bronze Kingdom hosts cultural events. Bennett offers tours rooted in the history of cross-continental forced migration and settlement. But Bennett wants to make the commercial gallery into a heritage attraction. He and his team are planning an $8 million expansion project, which would include moving the collection to a 50,000-square-foot space on International Drive. The venue would exhibit local and national artists, host performances, and bring African-based virtual reality rides.
"Nothing like this exists here," says Bennett.
The presence of a small handful of Black-owned commercial art galleries has created spaces for Orlando's African American artists to showcase their work. But outside of these spaces, obstacles remain. Orlando-based artist Jane Turner attributes part of the difficulty to how Black artists are perceived by white gallerists.
"I really don't think that they view us as a force," she says. "We're still considered outsider artists."
Turner exhibited at the Maitland Art Center for the first time this year, adding that she had been surprised at how few African American artists had showcased their work there.
"The art center has been in my community forever," she says. "We'd been passing by and were never invited to come in."
Part of the problem, she adds, is that Black artists in Orlando have, traditionally, functioned individually, exhibiting where welcomed and seeking opportunities in cities like Atlanta, Miami and New York with more structured Black art communities.
But a new wave of Black artists in Orlando are commanding a presence and creating a structure within and outside of institutional spaces.
Earlier this month, the Mercury Collective, a production and advocacy hub for creatives, hosted Indigenous Futurism, an exhibition and performance, in partnership with the Orlando Museum of Art's First Thursdays events. The theme paid homage to the African origins of human existence, forcing a dialogue that understands and acknowledges the universality of Blackness. The evening featured painting, sculptures and multimedia works from artists across ethnicities and performers in African-rooted body art. A group of traditional African drummers also performed alongside producers with MPC beat machines.
"Orlando is a melting pot," says Mercury Collective director Jamal Ward, who proposed the theme to the Orlando Museum of Art. "I'm just trying to stir the pot."
Ward came to Orlando from Philadelphia in 2012. He observed an overall arts scene that was ill-equipped, reluctant or outright opposed to nurturing talent.
"When I got here there just wasn't enough next-level developmental platforms for the artists," he says, noting that there could be possibility for the community through the mere presence of reputable arts institutions, like Full Sail University. "We've got about 30, 40, 50 years of that type of cultivation already happening. And sometimes people don't really know where they are."
In 2015, Ward began working on a musical project with Indigo Blak, a producer originally from Decatur, Illinois, who had moved to Orlando to attend Full Sail University. The project, called the Mercury Collective, featured collaborations between musicians, writers, and visual artists which birthed what Ward described as "soul-rooted relationships with creatives."
"There were a lot of conversations that took place in between the recording sessions," Ward says. "A lot of sharing and building and talking about what we need in the community. And it just evolved into this network of creatives building with each other."
The Mercury Collective has been driving change within Orlando's African American arts community and, more largely, the city's overall scene. Every third Thursday, the group partners with Orlando Game Space to bring artists and game developers together. The Collective also hosts an improvisational jam session called Kumbuka, which means "remember" in Kiswahili, at the Wells' Built Museum in Parramore. The idea is to connect art, music, and history in one of the only remaining historical institutions within Orlando's African-American community.
Dr. Williams Monroe Wells built the hotel during the segregation era as a hotel and entertainment venue for African Americans visiting Orlando. Since 2000, the space has served as a museum, housing artifacts from the Civil Rights movement. For Elizabeth Thompson, executive director of the museum, the Collective's arts events breathe life into the space and revive the memories of the Black men and women who helped shape Orlando's history, even as rapid development gentrifies the African American-settled areas in which this work was done.
"You have to reconcile with the fact that this community was part of the foundation of Orlando before Mickey Mouse came," says Thompson. "You have to understand that this building in the heart of what was the African-American community was a cornerstone and a springboard to Orlando and we need to know that. We need to know that Orlando is more than theme parks," she says.
Thompson says she hopes to see more Black-owned arts institutions start up, places like the former Montsho Books, on West Central Boulevard, which functioned as the community's bookstore. Retired African American teacher Jackie Perkins opened the shop in 1990, welcoming nationally and locally recognized artists and scholars. Elizabeth Thompson remembers being part of the Brain Bowl trivia team as a child. But the store closed in 2005 after losing the battle, along with other independent bookstores, to national chains.
The Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, which launched the same year as Montsho Books, is the only entity from that era with the same mission. The Zora Festival, now 29 years old, has hosted Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates. Organizer NY Nathiri recalls the process being relatively simple because Eatonville, where the festival is hosted, had what she calls "a cultural product."
"You would have to be really incompetent not to have been able to make [it] a success," she says. "I mean, you've got Zora Neale Hurston – even though people in Orange County hadn't heard of her, that's not the point. Others had heard of her, and they knew about Eatonville as a literary destination and the woman, she is a strong literary voice."
The festival, Nathiri says, received institutional support and benefited from coordination based on a collective vision.
That's one element that needs strengthening, according to Barbara Chandler, manager of the Hannibal Square Heritage Center in Winter Park. The center, founded in 2007 as the cultural arm of the Crealdé School of Art, is devoted to telling the stories of the African American community that once thrived there.
Chandler is one of the few Black arts administrators in central Florida. Lack of representation within white-owned gallery spaces, white-operated museums and arts organizations, she says, is a key reason why Orlando's Black arts scene has not thrived in past years.
"If the curator does not look like the artists, if the curator is not versed in Black history or Black culture, not connected to the Black community," says Chandler, "the art can get very diluted and become very theory-driven."
Chandler came onto the arts scene in 2007 through Crealdé School of Art. She began volunteering at the Heritage Center and helped launch the Hannibal Square Folk and Urban Festival in 2009, noting a need for more venues for Black artists to showcase their work. But now, she says, there's much more fervor around Black artists creating their own institutions.
"African-American artists are saying 'To hell with it. We gon' make a space for ourselves,'" she says. "'We don't need your consent. Give us a building and we can come and set up shop.'"
Last year, Ward became a member of the Orlando Museum of Art's Associates Executive Committee as a way to bring Black creatives' voices into a space that represented what he felt was credibility, but needed more inclusion.
"Sometimes when you deal with white entities or white institutions, white ownership," he says, "maybe they're not being racist driven. Maybe they're just not understanding. You know, that could be [the] case. That could be part of what it is, right? Whatever it is, it's a problem."
He noted that there are many people inside the museum and other spaces who want Black artists to be there. Meanwhile, some local artists are pushing to create even more Black-owned spaces. Orlando-born artist Adekunle Babatunde wants a Black cultural center for youth in the community.
"There's so much talent right in the neighborhood," he says. "Plenty, plenty talent. They don't have nowhere to really go and let out all this energy. We need more than basketball courts and football."
Funding remains a challenge, though, even for established institutions like the Wells' Built. Thompson says she finds that there are strong organizations bringing valuable arts services to the community, but they aren't receiving the sizable grants that white institutions are. Still, she says, the burgeoning creative class, which is all about collaboration, could really reinvigorate the arts scene.
That was the driver for building a successful Zora Festival, which made Central Florida a premier arts destination for decades, with visits and support from residents and tourists, Black and non-Black. It's all about working together, says Nathiri. And making real magic.
"The arts and humanities, if they are true to excellence, they are going to be accessible and have a universal appeal because it's about that which is essentially human," she says firmly.
Back at Three Masks, Adebule says he has already felt a shift as he transforms his commercial gallery into a community space. "It's lit a fire under me," he says. "That I should do even much better and come up with newer things."
Rather than collecting African art, he's collecting a group of Orlando residents and taking them to Africa – Nigeria – next year.
June 6, 2019 | Orlando Museum of Art
Body painting: @yayadelvalleart
Headpieces: @thisistyla @thisistylasview (Tyla Harrington)
Models: @the_rainbow_orisha @the_rainbow_fairy @mrjohnalamo @nanyelie_
Drummers: Kasa Saka: Kasa on Ngoma drums, Ezra on djembe and Tahir RBG on dunduns
Music: @moodtheparty @mondrianloop @omobadest @esp8k @kingcarlow
Support: @mave910 @palmerreedmusic @indigoblak @shinobistalin @cayanetwork @sarahkinbar @mauryallbright @unbridledcreative @angryovaries @tahirrbg @themercurycollective