Welcome back to my Space:Queens blog series!
For the past month, I’ve been participating on the advisory council committee and as a creative writing workshop facilitator for the upcoming No Longer Empty exhibition, Jameco Exchange, that is opening on May 21st at 89-62B 165th St. No Longer empty is an organization that works with local artists and community members in various neighborhoods throughout NYC to revitalize empty storefront spaces and other underutilized properties.
One of the exhibiting artists and performers will be Margaret Rose Vendryes, a local York College art professor and artist behind the African Divas Project, which combines traditional African mask ritual with iconic Black woman music divas. Her work comments on the intersections between traditional masquerade, spectacle, celebrity, iconography, beauty ideals, gender and racial performance, and spiritual ritual.
1) Tell the readers a little about yourself.
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and (with the exception of my first 5 years and two years of high school), and raised in Queens as the third of six daughters and one son.
I completed a BA at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts, an MA at Tulane University in New Orleans and a second MA and PhD at Princeton University in New Jersey. With only four studio art courses at Amherst College, the majority of my higher education was in art history concentrating on American art.
I continued to paint when I could, usually during the summer months. Finally, I began my full-time teaching career in 1997, and continue to teach both art history and now, studio courses, at York College, CUNY.
2) What first inspired you to start the African Diva Project?
In 2007, I left NYC, and teaching, for Boston where I had the opportunity to focus on painting. It was a huge risk that I was compelled to take. That summer, I spent a month in Mali, West Africa. I returned so thoroughly inspired, not so much by the art made there, which is awesome, but by the way artists appeared fulfilled by making their art. They were whole in a way that I wanted to be.
Although understood in retrospect, my African Diva Project began in 2005 with a painting of Donna Summer from the back of her Four Seasons of Love LP. I painted her wearing a Baule mask (Côte d’Ivoire) from my African art collection. That painting, which I thought would be just one experiment and am still changing as the mood inspires me, helped me realize that I had a “project” when I returned home to face it waiting for me on my easel. I finally saw myself as a driven visual artist as much as an art historian with a purpose. I invented a hybrid professional category for myself, I am an “Artist Historian.”
3) What is it about masking, masquerade and costuming that attract you? Do you see masks and masquerades as a speculative or fantastical tool in the cultures of the African diaspora?
Masks mean different things to different people, but most people think of them as transformative. Even when used for play, like Halloween, one’s outer appearance is changed. In the areas of Sub-Saharan African where there are masking traditions, the masker (usually male) becomes an important participant in performances that take place to mark moments in time that are often quite serious and vital to the continuity of tradition for those who witness it.
Yes, to both the spectacle and the fantastical element in masquerade! What attracts me is the revelation that one can be both self and other when under the “spell” of a mask. At times, the mask allows a level of abandon (and honestly) unavailable in life without that protective layer.
4) Since your project centers on giving a sense of divinity to black woman figures through traditional use of the mask, how does your work intersect gender expression, Afro-diasporic masquerade, and afrofuturism?
Black female singers are divine!!! My application of African masks to female performers is not traditional at all. An African would find my project most curious because it is counter to what is “right” for the masks and Black women. Gender expression in this case is turned on its head especially when African men dance masks that represent female ancestors or deities.
I have not thought of my work as Afrofuturistic, but I would not argue against that designation. Side B of the African Diva Project has the actual mask attached to the canvas, which allows the painting to push into a viewer’s space. It forces an interaction with a known reality… that we are all African.
5) Music plays a major role in your African Diva series; how does music influence the creation of your artwork, and is there a connection between the album covers and masquerade/costuming for you? Who are some of your favorite music artists?
My favorite soloists in the project thus far are those sisters who are no longer with us: Whitney, Natalie, and Donna but I am attached to them all. When I sing with them, I feel like an African Diva! I listen to the Diva I am painting at least through the first few sessions in the studio working on a new one. Then I listen to ALL of them in a playlist that is quite long now that there are 40 completed works.
Some of the choices I make are linked directly to the type of music a singer is known for. For example, The Pende mask (Democratic Republic of Congo) on Tracy Chapman appears in public when there is mourning or disease that needs to be abated in a community. Chapman’s music is so full of melancholy that I knew immediately that she should be pictured in that type of mask.
6) How is masquerade evolving in the 21st century and beyond?
Entertainment is a masquerade sometimes without the masks. I can’t comment on its “evolving” since I see the performances staged for/by Black women as still beholden to hyper sexuality.
7) How do you see Queens as a place of possibility and speculative/futuristic exploration?
It is all over the news that Queens is the next frontier for gentrification. It’s a double-edged sword of opportunity and displacement. I was recently invited to join a cohort of artists as a Jamaica Arts Leader Fellow at the Queens Council on the Arts. This much needed program is in its second year as a way to create community among practicing artists and to determine the needs of artists in Southeast Queens while development is happening around us rather than wait until the area’s transformation takes place without our input. Our borough is the most diverse in NYC and artists have always been here!!! The future is making that visible.
8) Can you tell the readers a little about the upcoming performance art that you will be putting together for the No Longer Empty exhibition in Jamaica?
This is the first interactive installation of The African Diva Project. It was inspired by the location found by the most excellent women of No Longer Empty on the 165 Street Jamaica Mall! I saw the changing room corner in the back of the former retail space and I literally saw a place where transformation and performance could take place for anyone interested in going there.
I am not a performer (but I will get up there and demonstrate if needed) and I am fortunate in having as a friend and colleague, Andre St. Claire who is a performance artist and will open the stage on May 21st at 2PM. She will inspire the performers to follow. I have filled a closet at Jameco Exchange (the show’s title) with an array of gowns for performers to choose from and wear after entering a lush changing room. In addition, a selection of African masks to accompany them onto a raised stage is available. There will be a list of African Diva songs to choose from and a microphone to use should the performer wish to sing along amplified. It is free-form interaction open to anyone in the mood.
Three of my African Diva paintings will be the backdrop of the stage and three masked LPs for paintings yet to be executed will be debuted in lavish gold frames. I will spend as much time as I can in the Gallery over the duration of the show to encourage visitors to get on stage.
9) You mentioned that you would be teaching a class on afrofuturism at York? Can you tell us a little about it and what those who may want to attend the class may expect?
Dr. Tom Zlabinger, faculty in our Music discipline, and I are developing the class to be taught in Fall of 2018. It’s still in flux but will certainly be a dynamic course!
10) Do you have any other future projects are you currently working on or have in mind?
I plan to add sound to my forthcoming African Diva paintings… I want to get closer to the spectacle that these fabulous women have created for us.
11) Since my blog is called Futuristically Ancient, in what ways are you both futuristic and ancient?
Both are right there on the surface of my project. My art will out live me into the future for sure and the strength of African art to survive through all time is already a given.
“Unable to afford art shipping costs, artist Margaret Rose Vendryes manually transported her African Diva painting, Punu Janelle to the group exhibition Bridging Boundaries: Redefining Diasporas at Columbia University dressed in suit, tie and spectator shoes to mirror the work of art.”