Divas Rock Empowering Masks
We sing, but oh the clay is vile/Beneath our feet, and long the mile/ But let the world dream otherwise, /We wear the mask! — Paul Lawrence Dunbar
This excerpt from "We Wear the Mask" on Margaret Rose Vendryes’ website serves as the perfect introduction for her African Divas series. This divas sing gloriously but the road to success can exact a heavy toll including the "masking" of being commodified.
Curator, art historian and historigrapher, professor and visual artist Vendryes brings a wealth of knowledge and skills to her work. The African Divas Project is a body of work that is as beautiful as it is a sociological and anthropological case study. In traditional African societies, men wore the transformative mask. Only one group of women – the Mende of Sierra Leone – had a masking tradition.
The Project transfers the mask and its power to vulnerable African American women. Vendryes views the women as losing personal agency when they are “packaged” and marketed by the corporate music industry.
Vendryes also is concerned about issues of aesthetics vis-a-vis race. She believes that many people look at African masks and see “ugly” and that prototypical African American women’s beauty is regarded in a similarly biased way because of its difference from the Western feminine ideal.
By wresting the mask from male control and putting it on African American female performers, Vendryes’ is figuratively performing a multiply meaningful act.
The paintings are replicas of LP vinyl record album covers of the divas from back in day (Nancy Wilson, Diana Ross, Betty Davis, Donna Summer, Cherelle) and covers of digital recordings of performers of today such as Janelle Monae.
In selecting iconic album cover art to depict, Vendryes is particularly attracted to the divas’ poses. Vendryes' sensitive rendering of their body language brings the divas to life and they pop off of the canvas.
Performance and visual art go hand in hand. Dancer, choreographer and activist, Katherine Dunham used movement and the art of costume making to interpret the cultures of African Diaspora people. Academically trained as an anthropologist, Dunham merged the study of anthropology with performance. Vendryes’ Africa Diva Project is reminiscent of Dunham’s work in this way. Vendryes also studied costume design and theatre.
The focal point of each painting is the African mask that serves as the diva’s head. This is practically important because traditional African artifacts are created, not as “art,” but to convey meaning and serve functions. Now that African pieces have become static fetishes in Western culture — fixtures in museums and art objects in collectors’ homes, Vendryes returns them to their empowering purposes.
Each work is titled by the name of the ethnic group that created the mask and the performer’s first name — e.g., Dan Grace is Grace Jones in a Dan mask. By placing a mask from a particular ethnic group on a particular performer, she is conflating the meaning and function of the mask and the identity of the person. Moreover, Vendryes says that the masks take on additional new meanings in her work:
I don’t think of these dynamic black female singers as being “behind” the masks. They become what the masks represent inside my work: beautiful, determined, resilient, uncompromising and generous. How dull would our lives be without their art and how fitting that they don these significant works of art?
Many of the masks I painted are museum treasures preserved in climate-controlled environments and shown under special light to save them from returning to the earth as was once intended. Ironically, they document the destruction of Africa’s past visual culture.
The power of the mask also struck artist Pablo Picasso in 1907 when he viewed African art at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro and later incorporated the African mask into one of his most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso's depiction of women in a Barcelona brothel includes one adorned with a Fang mask; the other wears a fantastical mask that breaks even further from verisimilitude.
While African American women performers have shaped popular culture, they themselves have been shaped. Their real-life masking includes make-up; wigs, weaves and hair extensions, plastic surgery and costumes—the “packaging.” Good and bad effects; powerful and debilitating ones merge in their experience. The first Diva in the series was Donna Summers. Her mask tranforms both the tragedies of her life and those of the star whose dress-lifted-by air-shaft-blast pose she assumed in an album cover photo: Marilyn Monroe. (Enlarge exhibition installation view below to see diva Donna on the far right.)
Within traditional cultures of Africa, the mask wearer becomes a medium that allows for a dialogue between the community and the spirits. The same can be said for the divas who make us feel, reflect and connect spiritually. Many are church-bred, most notably "The Queen of Soul," Aretha, the preacher’s daughter who grew up "gittin' the spirit" as she sang solo in gospel choirs and played stirring, gospel-style piano.
Like every great project, The African Diva series is growing and evolving. Recent Divas such as Punu Janelle and Guro Ntozake wear actual masks, not ones painted on canvas. And the performers in the series are not all divas in their personal demeanor. Janelle Monae pays homage to uniformed service providers in her dress and respectful attitudes. Although she has performed on stage, Guro Ntozake is principally a writer.
The entertainer RuPaul Charles is the only diva that is biological male. How fascinating would it be to also include the undisputed “Queen of Bounce”, the “Queen Diva” of New Orleans himself, Big Freedia, in the African Diva Project. Big Freedia and her dancers have incorporated movement, sounds and costuming that are reminiscent of African ceremonies, brought to New Orleans by the enslaved Africans and performed in Congo Square in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In March 2015, Margaret Vendres paused for a moment from her work as Distinguished Lecturer in Fine Arts and director of the Fine Arts Gallery at York College in Queens, NY. This scholar who earned a Ph.D. in art history in Princeton, published a book on the life and work of sculptor Richmond Barthe, and enjoys being a master teacher, must compartmentalize her life as an artist. "I hope to get at least two more Divas done over the summer," she said. "I miss the work VERY MUCH!"
The African Diva Project: Paintings by Margaret Rose Vendryes was on view at the OHR-O'KEEFE Museum of Art, Biloxi, MS, December 9, 2014 - March 7, 2015. The exhibition also included displays of some of the actual masks and album covers depicted in the paintings. The Divas' upcoming appearances include Vendryes' solo show at the Childs Gallery in Boston, May 21, 2015 - July 12, 2015.
The catalog for the series was published in 2015, The African Diva Project: 2005-2014, Paintings by Margaret Rose Vendryes. Signed by the artist, this limited edition catalog includes essays by S.J. Brooks and Vendryes, a CD of 16 original mixes, "Family of Divaz," by Damian Cohen and a collage by the artist Sir Froderick.
Turry Fluker is a writer who lives in New Orleans.