Fine Arts Professor Returns To York With ‘Diva’ Collection

By Brittney Adamson, York Journalism Major. Cold wax covers the canvases and the back of her paintbrush etches the lyrics of Beyoncé’s “I’m a Diva” in the background of the painting entitled, “Bamana Beyoncé.”

This painting is one of the pieces featured in Dr. Margaret Rose Vendryes’ exhibit, “33 1/3: Side Two, the African Diva Project Continues.”

The well-received exhibit opened on October 24 in the York College/CUNY Fine Arts Gallery when York’s president, Dr. Marcia V. Keizs, hosted a reception to celebrate art and artist alike.

Dr. Vendryes showcased 21 paintings of black female music soloists, including Diana Ross, Lena Horne and Tammi Terrell, Jody Watley, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and even, Rupaul.  Each diva on a square canvas was modeled after a 12-inch LP (Long Playing) vinyl album cover.  And in each painting the diva wears an African mask, chosen by Vendryes either to fit her character or because it was visually compatible with “the diva’s” image.

“I started putting the masks on the faces of the divas when I looked at Donna Summer on the cover of her “Four Seasons of Love” album,” said Vendryes. “She had on so much makeup sort of like a mask.”

From then on, Vendryes began to think about how women transform themselves with makeup to be seen in a particular way.  She decided to replace that mask with a more literal one.

This was the birth of side one of the African Diva Project.  However, the title came later when she saw Aretha Franklin in a Snickers commercial.

“She was sitting in the back seat with these boys, and complaining and they said to her stop acting like a diva,” said Vendryes.  “That’s when it hit me. Aretha really had me thinking of what it means to be a diva.   Do you have to be a woman with attitude or someone with great talent? That’s what these women are and the African part came about because they are all of African descent.  These are the types of masks that they will never be able to wear.”

In Africa, the masks are almost exclusively worn by men to represent powerful female deities and ancestors.  Now the female soloists’ wear these masks either painted on paper, and applied to the canvas or mounted directly on top in the place of her face.

“All of this is gender bending,” said Vendryes.   If I put a mask that men wore on a female, I would have to put a mask worn by a female on a man, as is the case with Rupaul, who wears the only mask women perform in, in Africa.

Side two of the project is still a work in progress.  It is covering new artists off of CDs now instead of vinyl -- like Beyonce and like her current painting, Janelle Monae.

“I started listening to more popular voices now when making side two, which is how Beyonce came about,” said Vendryes.  “But I do want York students to know that there is art and beauty in everything and that they should respect the talents and efforts of the folks that are coming up and the folks that have already been here.”

Vendryes was a tenured professor at York College from 2000-2007 before leaving to work on the Diva Project.  Now she’s back as Distinguished Lecturer of Fine Arts and Director of the Fine Arts Gallery at York. She will also be teaching courses on Curatorial Practices and Gallery Management, Contemporary Art, African Art, and African-American Art.

“I am so happy to be back, I know that I belong here,” said Vendryes.  “Now that I am a hybrid professor I have the opportunity to continue my art and teach.”

She is not alone in that sentiment.

“It’s good to have Dr. Vendryes back at York,” said President Keizs. “As both painter and professor, she has been among York’s finest; and I am happy she decided to come home. I am also delighted that she has brought this phenomenal body of work back with her to share with the campus and the broader community.”

The exhibition will run through December 2nd. For those wishing to see more, the professor will also be hosting an artist’s discussion, “Let’s talk about African Divas,” which she says will feature some of the divas (paintings) from the exhibition. This event will take place on November 12 during the Club Hours in Room 1M07.

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