i found god in myself

Exhibition Marking the 40th Anniversary of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls

Schomburg Center, NYC, September 19, 2014 - January 3, 2015

For Colored Girls Playbill In December 1974, Ntozake Shange and four other women peformed a poetry and dance piece in a women’s bar near Berkeley CA that contributed to the formation a burgeoning, self-affirming, literary movement for black women. But during the 1976-1978 Broadway run of Shange's for colored girls who've considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, the show unleashed a torrent of objections from black men about what they viewed as an unfair, scathing portrayal of themselves. The debate would continue through other events such as the film release of “The Color Purple,” adapted from the Alice Walker novel. Gender relations for the black Boomer generation were forever changed as a result of the “womanist" awakening in African American culture in the 1970s and early 1980s.  

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture kicks off its fall season with the exhibition, i found god in myself: the 40th anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls, a multimedia artist collaboration celebrating the 40th anniversary of the seismic choreopoem/play. The exhibition title is from the last line of for colored girls: "i found god in myself and i loved her fiercely." 

Curated by Souleo, i found god in myself includes 20 specially commissioned visual pieces by New York-area artists including Renee Cox, Rafia Santana, Margaret Rose Vendryes, Dianne Smith and Kimberly Mayhorn.

“It is not only gratifying, but joyous that the renowned Schomburg Library has taken upon itself the further enrichment of For Colored Girls through the visual arts,” says Ntozake Shange. “I am so excited to see what these artists have created.”

For exhibiting artist Margaret Vendryes, the commission was an opportunity to expand upon her "African Divas" series of portraits of masked African American pop divas based on images from album covers. 

Margaret Vendryes, Guro NtozakeVendryes reflected on the creation of Guro Ntozake for IRAAA:

Guro Ntozake was pulled out of me by the curator of the Schomburg show, Souleo who has been quite an advocate of my work.  As you can see in the title, this piece isn't technically an African Diva but an off-shoot in the African Diva style.  It is treated with the attachment of the back of the actual mask to the canvas.  What you see is a wood Guro mask that I sawed in half to make the profile of the photograph I used as a model and the other half appears as her cane. 

 I struggled with this one mightily because it was hard to decide to split that mask.  it is not an antique but is a contemporary mask that went from my collection to the wall! 

Here is the exhibition statement for the piece:

My spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender — Guro Ntozake, 2014

Using the poem “no more love poems #4” (performed by the lady in yellow) as a catalyst, I created My spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender - Guro Ntozake in the manner of The African Diva Project. I was inspired by a commercial image of Ntozake Shange at the premier for the film For Colored Girls and envisioned her wearing a dynamic Guro mask (Côte d’Ivoire) in my collection. The background is Indian yellow inscribed with the words of this poem, which speaks to continuity, enlightenment and transformation.

The sawing of the mask in half not only complements the illusion of three-dimensional form in my painting, but speaks to Africa divided in the black American mind as part of us and yet foreign.  I recognize here a duality.  African Americans can both wear Africa with pride as well as ideologically differentiate ourselves from what it means to be of African descent. 

Margaret Vendryes is a distinguished lecturer of art history at York College and director of its fine arts gallery.

IRAAA contributing writer Hermine Pinson learned about the i found god in myself exhibition when she gave a reading with Ntozake Shange at the Nuyorican Cafe in July 2014. Pinson, a professor of literature and Africana studies at the College of William and Mary, was reminded of numerous aspects of Shange's life and work as she viewed Vendryes' portrait of her friend:

In Margaret Rose Vendryes' Guro Ntozake, the African mask, the dress trailing behind her with a peacock's unfeigned beauty, the riotous flowers on the dress and the sassy tattoo echo the meaning of her first name, "Walks like a lion."  The juxtaposition also visually evokes the piquance of some of Shange's fictional characters from books, poems and plays — the ones she has invested with such righteous agency, the ones that creatively bridge the distance between spirit and human, and universe and music, from Bartok to David Murray to Hector Lavoe. 

In rendering their responses to "colored girls," artists have much to draw from:  Shange's  internal music; her Geechee girl background and magical arts heritage  (see her poem, "My Father is a Retired Magician"); her poetic meditations on the “dogon iguana”;  her imaginative portrayals of characters from Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (
“Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic.”) There's also fiber artist Liliane, the subject of Shange’s novel of the same name, whose work partakes of her own blood and communes with past, present and future. Shange herself is a painter of the word and the canvas.

P.s.: Yes, Ntozake does paint. I've seen her work.

i found god in myself exhibition announcementi found god in myself exhibition curator Souleo says that “the issues surrounding love, sexuality, gender equality, racial identity, and, ultimately, self-love that (Shange) wrote 40 years ago remain relevant today.”

Since the play’s debut performance in 1974, Shange’s work has captivated, provoked, inspired, and transformed audiences all over the world. Since, the work has remained a cornerstone of feminist, black, and LGBTQ-theory studies in colleges and theaters alike, both in the United States and abroad.

Supplementing the exhibition is archival material that traces the journey of Shange’s text from its very first performance at that California bar to its critically acclaimed run on Broadway. i found god in myself-related pieces will be on display at two nearby satellite locations: The Sol Studio and La Maison d’Art, both in Harlem.

Of related interest: article on Margaret Vendryes' "African Divas" series.