California College Margaret Vendryes Feminist Movement Discussion Questions Two things to do
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ARTIST Margaret Vendryes
What is it About African Divas…?
Margaret Rose Vendryes is an artist, art historian, and curator with an established record of
publications and exhibitions including her book Barthé, A Life in Sculpture (2008) and curator of
Beyond the Blues: Reflections on African America from the Amistad Research Center Fine Arts
Collection (New Orleans Museum of Art, 2010). She will speak about her multimedia studio art
practice inspired by African aesthetics and its intersection with black music and visual culture.
She is currently Professor of Art History and Chair of Performing & Fine Arts and Director of
the Fine Arts Gallery at York College, City University of New York.
1. Margaret Rose Vendryes’ African Diva Project focuses on the intersection between mostly
black female pop stars and African culture. Her project is built around the LP album covers she
used to listen to and believes that the album covers as a staple component to the ritual of
listening to music. Album covers also symbolize the commercialization of music as well as the
oppression of artists through management. An example of this oppression is the album covers of
Dianna Ross, which depicts her in a compact and vulnerable manner. Margaret Vendryes’ feels
strongly that the depiction of black female pop stars, such as Dianna Ross, undermines their
strength and power by making them look weak. Her mission was to take these stars and represent
them in the way they deserved so their cover art could show their true strength as stars, which
she creatively displayed when making the African Diva Project. In this project, Margaret
Vendryes adds ceremonial African masks to popular album covers to show the true strength of
these divas. The ceremonial masks, typically worn by men, strengthen these female stars by
showing their role is as important as their male counterparts. The masks also connect these stars
to “ancestral grace.” The African Diva Project questions the societal role of these stars and the
structure in which they compose their own art through its mixture of composed expression and
chronicle installments. The chronology of the project was originally thought to be thirty-three
and one third paintings, a number randomly made by Vendryes to organize the project. However,
the idea of the project being multiple pieces meant to show that these performers come from a
long line of performers originating with African Culture. Margaret Rose Vendryes exhibits a lot
on the structure built around the artists and uses the medium of art to open a dialogue on the
importance of these divas.
2. Margaret Vendreyes mentioned that in day to day life Africans must wear a mask; they must
be in character and perform rather than act as who they really are. The mask Vendreyes places on
her divas reverses this notion, by connecting her divas to their African ancestry. When an African
wears a mask that originates in their tradition, they are set free into their true form and can
finally become real. Additionally, placing the traditional masks on women reverses the gender
norms of the masks. Although many of the masks pay homage to women ancestors or spirits,
they are restricted to be manufactured, worn, and performed by men only. Addressing this irony
by placing the masks on women, they become empowered in not only connecting with their
roots, but also by redefining the norms of power within society. The mask also addresses the
hypersexualization and marketing tactics imposed by white men on female performers. Often
times the women themselves were not in control of the way in which their music or
performances were advertised, and so the mask represents bringing dignity back to the artist as
an individual. The reason this project has more impact than placing the masks in a museum,
perhaps, is because it refuses to compartmentalize history. Ancestry and tradition are continuous
and fluid–they continue to impact black identities today–and a museum wall doesn’t do justice in
highlighting that contemporary nature. Rather than an artifact, the mask is a current influence,
and so placing it directly on the diva serves to connect African influences to pop culture
influences in America. It highlights the connection between Africa and African-Americans,
rather than treating it as a relic. It also personifies the mask. The wearing of the mask is an
action, a conscious ownership of identity, rather than a symbolic object. The divas who don the
mask have autonomy over their actions and their representation in pop culture. Although
Vendreyes public performance on the subway with the Janelle Monae piece was an accident, its
served to highlight this dynamism.
3. In her “The African Diva project”, Margaret Vendryes uses the paintings of well-known
African American female icons with their faces covered with African artifacts masks as a way to
celebrate African heritage and roots and to empower African-American women.
The masks are worn by the traditional shamans who act as intermediary between the tribe
members and the divine and are considered be a high honor and held in high esteem. Since, it
was rarely worn by females in the African countries, by placing them on her “divas”, she
accentuate those African-American icons and make them more powerful. Rather than sexualizing
and objectifying those icons, instead she uses a spiritual artifacts to honor them.
One of the reason for chosing famous as singers and actresses such as Janelle Monae is simply
because of their high status and being a well-known African American personality. It gives
Vendryes a way to reach a wide audience to showcase and honor African roots. Those “divas” are
followed and recognized by millions from sorts of background. However using famous singers
and actress’ bodies creates a peculiar image stirs curiosity in the viewer mind who might not be
familiar with the significance of such a mask which is optimal way to educate one on the African
traditions and culture opening a Pandora’s box of exploration of African culture. In
contemporary culture, the mainstream media rarely depicts African culture. The average
American’s knowledge on African culture and customs is virtually nonexistent. “The African
Diva project aims to bring the African pride and heritage to everyone and in a way commands
respect. It empowers those widely known African American women and elevates them to nobler
status. Especially placing a painting of Janelle Monae in a busy area such as New York subway
brings African heritage to thousands and makes an awesome spectacle.
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