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.”