THE AFRICAN DIVA PROJECT, A SOLO EXHIBITION Margaret Rose Vendryes
Margaret Rose Vendryes is an art historian, visual artist, and curator. She received her BA in fine arts from Amherst College, MA in art history from Tulane University, and Ph.D. in art history from Princeton University. Among several honors, Vendryes was an American Association of University Women Fellow and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 2008, University Press of Mississippi published Vendryes’ book Barthé, A Life in Sculpture, the first comprehensive monograph on the late African American sculptor Richmond Barthé. The African Diva Project, a multimedia body of work reveals Vendryes’ engagement with African art and aesthetics and its intersection with Black celebrities and visual culture. The Project began in 2005 and has grown to over 75 works of art including paintings on canvas and paper, digital compositions, collage, interactive installation, and outdoor art exhibitions.
Vendryes is currently Professor of Art History, Performing and Fine Arts and Director of the Fine Arts Gallery at York College, City University of New York.
My African Diva Project pays homage to black performers whose voices mark significant moments in my life journey. LP jacket covers with full-figure portraits inspired Side A consisting of 33 ⅓ square format paintings completed in 2013. Many album jackets remained on the editing table waiting to be given a role in The Project. Several of them inspired collage treatments where, once masked and placed in its gilded frame complete with brass exhibition label, they now represent a separate series within The Project: The Gilded LPs.
In my opinion, Diva is a positive moniker to assume. I see a Diva as someone with high self-esteem. These are the type of black people I choose to represent. Solo artists, who get out on the stage alone and enchant their audience, are particularly brave. A Diva knows what she is capable of, what she wants, and believes she deserves all of it. Divas are exceptional. But, the title also carries negative connotations. I put African in front of Diva because the masking aspect of my Project shifts the persona back to the continent — performers that mask in Africa are Divas. They are exceptional. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be allowed to wear the mask.
Along with a folder of clippings (product advertisements, CD foldouts, etc.), my collection of African masks took center stage when I began Side B of The Project. Unlike Side A, where my interest in collage and graffiti are brought together using only oil paint, Side B African Divas don wood masks carved in Africa for the export trade markets. The masks I choose are skillfully rendered after traditional forms, or are new innovations used in contemporary African masquerade. They are as compelling as the museum quality masks I carefully painted on paper. Changed as well is the background hand-scripted graffiti; rather than a selection of song titles, the lyrics to one song that resonates with me fills the space. Dan Leela is among the Side B African Divas. She is surrounded by words embedded in a rich violet that ask, “Where’s the music gone?” One of my goals for the African Diva Project is to remind us that music lives on within us.