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Margaret Rose Vendryes

Artist 74

Margaret Rose Vendryes The African Diva Project

Margaret Rose Vendryes is an art historian, visual artist, and curator. She has established a successful studio practice enhanced by her scholarly engagement with African aesthetics and its intersection with popular black music and visual culture. Today’s focus will be on the African Diva Project an on-going painting series that began in 2005.

She began the series to celebrate and connect popular Black women singers with their African ancestors has evolved.

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.

Her 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.

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.

Vendryes has said, “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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