Category Archives: Religion/Spirituality

“Space:Queens” : Margaret Rose Vendryes


 

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Source: Margaretrosevendryes.com

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.

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Baule Donna

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.”

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The My-Stery: “Get In-Formation: Black Performance, Black Code and Black Spies”


The Mask as Technology Part 3:

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Source: AllHipHop.Com

Although I tried not to add onto the dozens of think pieces that are already out there about Beyonce’s latest video, “Formation,” sometimes I like to jump on the bandwagon to either use it momentarily like a free ride to a needed destination or to veer it off into my own direction.

The video has opened the door for much conversation and possibility of new connections, which to me is the main benefit of it, and there has been valid thoughts on all sides about it from the possible meanings of its symbolic artistic imagery and bringing some focus to black cultures that often have been forgotten, marginalized or denigrated, even by black people themselves, to the critiques that highlight the problematic centering of a cis-gendered, non-queer, high class, wealthy, light(er)-skinned, thinner celebrity against the marginalized realities of poorer, lower-class, heavier-set, darker-skinned, queer and transgendered people. Looking at the video and listening to the lyrics, it is difficult to ignore its use of Western capitalistic and white-centric measures of power, including Givenchy and Bill Gates, and their stark contrast against the images of disasters that affected those marginalized communities and black traditions that helped us to survive the violence and trauma created by the former. It does appear on the surface to be a form of capitalist opportunistic exploitation, appropriation and a softer silencing/erasing of marginalized cultures despite the “inclusion” of their imagery.

But as a creative writer/artist myself, I tend to look at culture and imagery more ambiguously. In trickster philosophy, various contradicting realities and meanings exist at once; we all wear various conflicting masks to negotiate with and maneuver through society at large. At the end of the day, Beyonce is a pop artist, not an activist per se, and just as I can learn and be inspired by various sources, I can be inspired by her work and apply it back to my own work.

Certain aspects of “Formation,” and responses to them, kept stirring thoughts in my mind, especially in relation to recent posts I had on this blog. Not saying all the thoughts below went through Beyonce’s mind, but these are the thoughts her video inspired in me. Let us look beyond Beyonce because it, for me, is not about her but the larger symbolism and archetypes that are part of human psyche and social cultures.

Here is a list of my (random) thoughts:

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The My-Stery: Manual for The Move Forward (Based on The Salt Eaters)


Toni Cade Bambara

For the first post of the new year, here is a short manual of lessons I was able to tease out from reading Toni Cade Bamabara’s The Salt Eaters. The Salt Eaters is a novel about a small Southern community of Claybourne who are searching for the healing properties of salt while also preparing for a carnival. The book centers on two characters, Minnie Ransom, the community healer and leader of a group of healers, and Velma Henry, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and near suicide, undergoes a healing session. At its base, The Salt Eaters is sankofic its nature — looking back, moving forward and every other way weaved in between. If you want to read more pieces about Bambara’s work, The Feminist Wire recently did a tribute forum for her.

1) “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” The opening question of the book and warning from the healer Minnie Ransom, reminds us that healing and moving forward takes work; it takes processing through a lot of hurtful trauma. Healing is proactive not reactionary. Not only that, when you are well, you are not done. There is responsibility after that (“a lot of weight when you’re well”) (10).

2) Everything is interconnected. One of the characters said, “the material without the spiritual and psychic does not a dialectic make” (64). All parts of life intersect and shape one another (laws of reciprocity, attraction and repulsion, supply and demand on 133). One of the reasons The Salt Eaters is a difficult read is that it cannot be read like a traditional linear novel. The book works more like a webbed-matrix, interweaving in and out of various stories, people, and signs who are all connected to Velma, the main center. The entire community is an extension of Velma and Velma is an extension of them, as we journey through the “master’s mind.” Velma’s healing will affect the entire community It also interweaves various aspects of life from myth to spiritual ritual to science that underpin the book as they are versions of each other and shape each other. If one area is sick or lacking it impacts the others.

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The My-Stery: Five Black Witches Is Too Much for Black Audiences?


On Wednesday night after watching American Horror Story: Freak Show, I tuned in to watch the latest of TV One’s Hollywood Divas episode, “Five Black Witches.” One of the opening scenes is the de facto leader of the group, Paula Jai Parker, presenting to producer Carl Craig the idea agreed upon in previous episode for a supernatural film about five black sisters who are witches who each would have their own special powers.

Parker acknowledged that there is no film she was familiar with that deals with the supernatural through the experience of the black community, although it can be argued that several exist (Beloved? Sankofa? Several independent films?), but Craig’s immediate reaction was an obvious aversion to the concept. He looked as if he was wondering what the hell Parker just give him. Although he did say this was cutting edge material, he felt that black audiences would have a difficult time embracing this type of story, that they will look at it as “demonic” (here we go).

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The My-Stery: Animism, Cybernetics and Adaptability


“Android/Negroid # 1” by Wayne Hodge

Ever since my mother received her smart phone, she has constantly been coming to me with numerous questions about how to use it. She has such a difficult time adapting to how it works no matter how many times I show her. No matter how much she uses the smart phone, I don’t think she fully connects or pays attention to it in order to learn. She cannot learn how to use the smart phone if she does not open herself to learning how to use it. Half the time when I am showing her what to do, I am not exactly sure what I am doing myself; I am figuring it out as I go along based on a set of knowledge I have learned already from smart phones and just playing around with it. I try to work with the phone based on how it might move or based on the signs it gives.

Sometimes, I think she sees technology as a magic device that will just do for her and she doesn’t want to take the energy to work with it, to move with it. Sometimes, I think that she thinks of God in that way, too. God is somewhat detached from herself as much as the technology is and she lets it remain that way. This experience with my mother stirred my thoughts on our interaction with God (or higher spirit) and technology. Maybe we should see God (or higher spirit) much like the character Lauren Olamina does in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. If “God Is Change,” I have to learn its fundamentals and adapt with it. I have to interconnect with it as if it is a part of me, as if we are extensions of each other, that I have to attach it to me and bend it to my image to survive and grow as much as it bends and changes my image. As for technology, it should be looked at in a similar fashion. It adapts to you as much as you adapt to it.

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Modern Griots Reviews: “Mulheres De Axe” – CCCADI Celebrates the Sacred Power of Women of Spirit


Mulheres de Axe (Axe Women)
Marta Vega, Iyalorixa Pereira and Lorelei Williams

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We still struggle for empowering spaces to hear the voices of Black women of the African diaspora, including those part of powerful spiritual traditions outside of the typical Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). But during this month, CCCADI has hosted a few events honoring specifically Brazilian women of the Candomble religion and their struggle to continue these traditions onto the next generations despite persecution from those in power.

First was “Spirituality and Justice in Brazil” featuring a conversation with Candomble priestess and activist Iyalorixa Valinizia Pereira and translator Lorelei Williams at La Casa Azul Bookstore. From one of the most well-known terreiros (ritual temples) in Bahia, Brazil, Terreiro do Cobre, Pereira is responsible for the preservation of sacred rites, ritual music and dance, medicinal knowledge and liturgical African languages passed down to her for seven generations. Candomble is a West African-derived (or an African-Matrix religion as Pereira and Williams described) syncretic religion. The primary purpose of Candomble is to cultivate a connection to nature and spirit because we cannot do anything without the elements of nature, like the energy of water or the plants and greens that nourish and heal us (early morning usually include herbal baths). Candomble members believe in one main God, Oludumare, who is served by or is dispersed into numerous smaller deities, the Orixas, like Chango, Yanson (Oya), Omulu, Osain and Oshun, who are responsible for different aspects of nature. Pereira described this as universal connection to nature even if one is not religious.

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Modern Griots Reviews: CCCADI’s The Goddess Grove


Osun Grove Source: UNESCO

In many of today’s cultures and societies, feminine power and energy is not considered as important enough to be celebrated. Almost in every part, including in religion and spirituality, it is demoted in status and seen as a ridiculous notion. I remember sitting in a Pentecostal church one time listening to the sermon of a female pastor who openly praised Father God but found the idea of Mother Nature or Mother God to be absurd. Why is it that we can have a Father God, a son who is a savior, but the mother’s role is either erased in the role of the Holy Spirit or reduced to a human in the form of the Virgin Mary.

Fortunately, there are still spaces that celebrate and honor the sacredness of feminine power and energy. Last Wednesday, I went to a sold-out event (proving the thirst still for this appreciation), the Caribbean Cultural Center‘s The Goddess Grove presenting the premiere of Jamel Cherry‘s documentary Odun/Osun: The Return to the Water about the Orisha goddess Osun (Oshun).  The film featured footage from a tour of the Osun Grove and the annual Osun festival in Oshogbo, Nigeria as well as the history, myths and mythological importance, and the socio-cultural importance of figure Osun.

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