In case you’re not a scholar of social mores and gender roles within traditional African cultures, the key point is that often, only men wear tribal masks, even though many masks depict powerful female deities. Vendryes wanted to turn the norm on its head. “By wearing these masks,” the artist has said, “I’m giving them protection and creating a persona that gives them a sense of power and respect, in a sense connecting them back to their cultural legacy, the performance of Africa.”
Protection, Vendryes suggests, from the cut-throat world of show business, a system that could make even the toughest woman feel vulnerable, and protection from the world itself. It’s tough out there for a modern girl: think Donna Summers’s “She Works Hard For the Money,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” and countless other anthems written or performed by African-American women.
In this series, Vendryes appropriates images provided by the subjects themselves: the women’s poses and styling are directly inspired by the performers’ own album covers. Whitney Houston’s Whitney: The Greatest Hits inspired Ekoi Whitney (2010) for example, while Irene Cara’s What A Feeling serves as the basis for Zamble Irene, African Diva (2011). Vendryes’s reinterpretations celebrate these conventional representations of glamor, but reimagine the women in a richer cultural context.
The intricate detail of the tribal masks calls back to another time and place, but the artist’s choice of format keeps her subjects grounded in a contemporary setting. Vendryes’ pieces, mostly oil and cold wax on canvas and paper, are modeled after square 12-inch LPs, and she incorporates the performers’ lyrics into each painting’s background. “Messages that once rose out of vinyl channels like black magic,” as the artist wrote, “inscribed in the space that surrounds them.”
The juxtaposition of tribal traditions and pop culture is a striking one. These “African Divas” are still divas—symbols of both sex appeal and feminine empowerment—but Vendryes’ works challenge the viewer to consider them within the deeper traditions to which they rightfully belong. Recasting the late Whitney Houston, so to speak, as not only the “Queen of the Night,” but as an actual leader.
“Margaret Rose Vendryes: The African Diva Project” is on view at Childs Gallery, Boston, May 21st – Jul. 12th, 2015.