Legendary Diva is a memorial exhibition celebrating the art and life of the late Margaret Rose Vendryes: artist, historian, scholar, curator, and dear friend of Childs Gallery. The exhibition showcases works from Vendryes’ prolific African Diva Project, a series of paintings, prints, and works on paper spanning nearly two decades. These works feature images of black women icons pulled from mass media, such as album covers and promotional images, with their faces surmounted by traditional African masks. The project interrogates concepts of gender, race, power, and the intersections thereof, long-standing interests of Vendryes as a multi-disciplinarian.
The series began in 2005 after Vendryes attended a performance of masquerade dancers on a trip to Mali. She was inspired by the continuity and cultural retentions she perceived between these African dancers and the performances of African American music icons, noting, “If you look at Beyoncé throwing her body around on stage, that's exactly what African dancers do when they mask.” The experience translated into Vendryes’ first painted diva, Donnalyn Summeroe, a striking image of Donna Summers posed as Marilyn Monroe while also donning an African mask. The series continued with Vendryes’ Side A divas, featuring full length portraits of soloists wearing masks painted on paper then applied to the canvas, and was expanded by Side B, where the painted paper masks were replaced by eye-catching wood carved African masks. The series evolved further to eventually include prints, as well as images of male performers such as Billy Porter and Ray Charles.
Though African masks are worn almost exclusively by male performers as well as carved only by men, most represent women ancestors or spirits. A mask transforms its wearer during a performance, making the act a rich ground for investigations of gender and power dynamics within the African diaspora. Early black female singers in the West were styled and marketed by white males in the recording industry - what they wore, what they sang, and how PR machines presented them to the public was out of the performers’ control. Vendryes removes the performers from their original images and provides them with masks traditionally ascribed to men. By placing these masks on female music legends, Vendryes grants her Divas the powers of the deities they represent and liberates them from imagery rife with western patriarchal notions of beauty and sexuality.
Vendryes’ Divas gain agency and authority through their integration with these potent African masks. Each Diva has been carefully paired with her mask based upon perceived similarities between the performer and the being represented by the carving. Juxtaposing this western and African imagery, the project addresses diaspora as both the dissemination of heritage and its retention through subsequent transmittal and reinterpretation. As amalgamations of African traditions and American popular culture, Vendryes ties her paintings to experiences that span oceans and generations. Her divas are possessed of an ancestral aura that perhaps speaks to those whose ancestors might well have been African masqueraders, providing a framework for discussion of identity as it pertains to the past, present, and future.
Margaret Rose Vendryes’ first interactions with Childs Gallery were back in the late 1990s when she assisted the gallery with research on a Richmond Barthé sculpture (Margaret being the preeminent scholar on his work); it was a role she revisited with us throughout her career. In the early 2000s when the gallery had a cast of Barthé's Africa Awakening, current gallery president Richard Baiano met Margaret, which was the beginning of both a personal and professional relationship. During this time, we learned of the African Diva Project, and Richard acquired a painting for his personal collection. Childs Gallery also later produced a well-received solo exhibition of the project in 2015. Always a consummate educator, Margaret most recently offered advice and consultation on diversifying the gallery’s program and was very pleased with our increasing representation of queer and BIPOC artists. We will always be grateful to Margaret for her contributions to the gallery, as both a peer and friend. She ended every conversation or email with "it's all good" – a sentiment we hope to convey moving forward with her memory and work.
Legendary Diva is on view at Childs Gallery November 19, 2022 through January 7, 2023. An opening reception will take place on Saturday, November 19, from 5-7pm.