African Headdresses Turn Heads

At Auction And On Divas

Baga Headdress. Photo: Courtesy of BonhamsFetching $305,000, a Baga headdress from the Guinea Coast of Africa led the auction of African and Oceanic art on November 14, 2013 at Bonhams, New York.  The headress representing a d'mba,  or "idea" of a beautiful mother,  was purchased by an important European dealer. This auction room was packed with domestic and international collectors and dealers in town for the many, so-called “Tribal Art” events taking place in New York.  

African artworks that stood out in the sale, in addition to the Baga headdress, included a Bamana or Mandinka forehead mask from Mali that sold for $23,750, soaring past a pre-sale estimate of $4,000-6,000, and two wooden Luba female figures from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that brought $22,500 and $20,000, respectively.  Luba artists have historically celebrated and honored the female figure in their art.

Perhaps a Baga headdress also will make a fabulous appearance in Margaret Vendryes’ African Divas series. Featured the Spring 2013 issue of the print IRAAA (vol.  24, no.2), Vendryes masked divas are on view at the York College/City University of New York in  "33 1/3: SIDE TWO, The African Diva Project Continues" through the December 2.

Margaret Vendryes with Leela at York College openingThe initial divas were 2-D renderings.   The Side Two divas are literally breaking through the canvas.  So far, two have been completed with actual masks attached to the paintings; Leela is shown here.  “The new female soloists are pushing the envelope in terms of performance and personae,” says Vendryes.   “Janelle Monae is next up and Rhianna.  Both are treading in the footsteps of much earlier Divas."

A Young Scholar on the African Diva Project

Commentary by S.J. Brooks, Ph.D. candidate in art history, Boston University:

Margaret Vendryes paints large scale replicas of black sirens from LP album covers.  While the body forms represented are true to the original image, the faces of these divas have been replaced with African masks. From Donna Summer, Eartha Kitt, and Lena Horne to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Tracy Chapman, the combination of popular culture and diaspora is realized through the paintings.

Bwa Aretha - African Diva, 2009, oil and cold wax on canvas and paper, 36 x 36 inches, Private Collection, NY, NYMusic is a pervasive theme in contemporary artmaking and exhibition planning, for example, Valerie Casell Oliver's Ben Patterson: Born in the State of FLUX/us and Trevor Schoonmaker's The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.  New academic interests in the relationship to music and culture also are being pursued as sound is becoming an integral part of theory.  My interest lies in the reworking and social commentary that the African Diva series sparks. These divas have entered into popular culture through their music. The masks as well belong to a tradition of dance performance. Thus the combination of mask and diva, starts from music, performantivity, and entertainment, the series presents a complex interaction between the two.

Sowei RuPaul, African Diva, 2012, oil & cold wax on canvas and paper, 48 x 48Dan Leela – African Diva, 2013, Oil & cold wax on canvas, wood and raffia mask, 40 x 30The African Diva series offers an example of diasporic contemporary art, that provides an easily digestible understanding of the interaction of African cultural tradition with the history of African American female entertainers: Divas. Diaspora as a framework of interrogation, offers an ability to locate contemporary black cultural production within a relevant structure. In starting with the moment of movement, it creates a more inclusive history. In her book Black is a Color, Elvan Zabunyan describes Diaspora as:

The loss of cultural origin, following the forced migration from one continent to another, the crossing of the Atlantic and arrival in the United States had the consequence that the slaves, until their emancipation, had to create without any stable territory their identity reference on new social and cultural foundations.1

Diaspora implies a forced migration or movement that creates a traumatic loss of culture; one which is often attempted to regain throughout generations.2 Thus the relationship to cultural heritage is different, is accessed differently, and expressed differently. Such a structure is necessary when discussing artwork like the Divas. Their fraught subjectivities can be understood more so when looking back onto the history that black women have represented as performers and entertainers.

Artistic actions by artist of the black Diaspora not only have a different relationship to modernity, but also have a different function. The affective relationship to culture and modernity that created such subjectivities produces artworks that need to be understood through a framework that reflects such understandings: “Diasporic poetics demonstrate – contrary to the claims of modernism – that art never ceases to address the past for the future; it interprets history to disclose the deeper ‘truths’ of our world historical situation.”3  The temporal relationship to modernity is also evidenced here; these productions are simultaneous in conversation with the past, the present, and multiple modernities.

The affect sustained through a traumatic cultural loss is different from a more generalized understanding of migrations and movement of peoples. I would argue that this distinction is fundamental to understanding the position through which artworks like the African Diva series can be understood. Vendryes is working with these Divas, women whose talents and beauty have become the commodity focus, and she inverting the relationship with the mainstream back in on itself. Instead of offering their female forms as objects to desire, again, she is creating a moment of reflection and providing insight into ‘diva.’

When speaking about the Divas, Vendryes describes them as “a certain level of performer, women who have persevered through a tough arena in the music world.” 4 Although she is constant in focusing on the importance of “creating beautiful works,” there is an acknowledgement of depth and seriousness that also exists in the artworks. Vendryes states that there is a vulnerability in the positioning of each women in the environment of the album cover, and that all albums were either designed by men or groups dominated by white men. Thus there is an active construction of what an African American female entertainer should look like being promoted by people who did not share the same identity. The artist wanted to transform that vulnerability and masking the women presents a type of visual healing of the fractured identities that they represented. For instance, in Donna Summer’s album, she has a lyric: “Dim all the lights, turn my brown body white.” 5 Masking Summer in effect transposes the focus from attempting to become something else into a visually reparative: the mask reconnects the Diva. The end goal, is to create something beautiful, something Vendryes says "most people won’t say about black women, OR about African art… Most people are puzzled by African art… So to put something considered grotesque, on top on what is considered alluring, sexual…Never fails to make people think.” A critical piece of the success of this series is in the ability of the artworks to attract. Just as these women have been characterized and created to be attractive, Vendryes reworking of their album cover upends an understanding of attraction back on itself through combining different understandings of beauty.

The African Diva series presents a fusion of object and icon. What has been painting is not a superficially pairing of either, but rather a presentation of a thoughtful relationship between both. This specific relationship between trauma and culture in an act of recuperation or rejection to the hegemony marks the difficult place of understanding of artworks produced throughout the black Diaspora. The various layers of meaning and history that accompany icons and objects are revealed in an explorative framework of Diaspora which provides, not only for the popular culture and the culture of reference, but most importantly for the intertwining of the two.

1. Elvan Zabunyan, Black is a Color, trans. Paul Buck and Catherine Petit(Paris: Éditions Dis Voir, 2005).
2.  “…diaspora suggests dislocation from a place of origin and relocation in a new setting, underscoring diaspora as not only the scattering of peoples but also an indication of their relationship to the new places they inhabit.” Steven Nelson, “Diaspora: Multiple Practices Multiple Worldviews,” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, edited by Amelia Jones, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 297.
3.  Jean Fisher, “Diaspora, Trauma, and the Poetics of Remembrance,” in Exiles, Diasporas and Strangers edited by Kobena Mercer, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008), 210.
4. Margaret Vendryes, interviewed by SJ Brooks, 20 July 2011.
5. Donna Summer, Dim all the lights, 1979, produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.