Margaret Rose Vendryes

I am an art historian, visual artist, and curator.  My African Diva Project is an on-going painting series that began in 2005.  The Project is informed by my engagement with African aesthetics and popular African American music and visual culture. What began as a painting series conceived to celebrate and connect popular Black women singers with their African ancestors has evolved.  The most recent works are mixed media that include original masks, carved or cast, by African craftsmen.

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African masks are worn almost exclusively by male performers and all are made exclusively by men. Ironically, most African masks represent women ancestors or spirits that transform the masked man during important times in a community’s life.  African masking traditions offer rich ground for investigations of gender dynamics in the African Diaspora.

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My African Divas break the rules by not simply wearing the mask but becoming the powerful being it represents.  Like a singer taking the stage stimulated by a swell of music, the appearance of a masked performer transforms and elevates time and place.  Although masquerades staged for entertainment have come to dominate the practice in Africa, performances are rarely meant to only entertain.  There are lessons to be learned and stories to be transmitted in an effort to retain tradition and make a difference in the lives of the audience.  Such is the case with Black women vocalists who are, and have always been, change agents.

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The African Diva Project opens a dialogue about the power dynamics surrounding race and gender identity in the US. Early black female singers in the West were styled and marketed by white males in the record industry. What they wore, what they sang, and how PR machines presented them to the public was out of the performers’ control.  An African Diva has agency and authority made possible, in part, by her potent African mask. 

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My craft is inspired, and instructed, by master portrait painters; John Singer Sargent and Barkley Hendricks among them.  Hendricks, in particular, used the state portrait once reserved for wealthy whites to celebrate black beauty.  I follow his lead with reverential, full-body portraits of black women soloists that are modeled on images designed to sell product.  Becoming an African Diva dismantles the façade to unveil a true, ancestral aura.  

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I believe that the ability to perform well before live audiences is in one's DNA.  As an African American art historian and artist, my work naturally relates to the African Diaspora.  I am inside The African Diva Project with my handwritten inscriptions of titles and lyrics in the background that speak aptly for women whose ancestors might well have been African masqueraders.

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 Princeton University - Doctor of Philosophy, Art History

Tulane University  - Master of Art, Art History

Amherst College - Bachelor of Art, Fine Art

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