Queens art project celebrates black female singers

Artist Margaret Rose Vendryes poses near cutouts of her art, “Standing Ovation: The African Diva Project” at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center.
Jacqueline Herranz-Brooks

A new outdoor art installation in Queens celebrates some of the biggest black female singers in entertainment.

Seven pieces from the “Standing Ovation: African Diva Project,” will adorn the lawn of the Jamaica Performing Arts Center in Jamaica until March 24. The project features large cutouts of art created by Margaret Rose Vendryes. The visual artist and historian started the project more than a decade ago with the unique idea of reimagining black female soloists throughout history wearing African masks. Because several of these women were not in control of their images, Vendryes wanted to create an alternate version of them.

“This project is my connection to black women singers that I’ve enjoyed, what they offer to life and black people, and all people through their sound, writing, and producing albums,” she said. “But this is also a critique on the choices they used to sell music.”

The entirety of her project consists of paintings of 45 singers. Vendryes, along with seven other artists had to choose a certain number of work to display as part of the public artwork proposal commissioned by the Queens Council on the Arts to install temporary art in parts of Jamaica and Jackson Heights. She chose seven of her paintings, which include: Aretha Franklin, Nancy Wilson, Lena Horne, Macy Gray, Tammi Terrell, Thelma Houston, and Janelle Monae.

Though the faces of these singers are covered due to the masks, Vendryes chose iconic full figure images of the women that are easily recognizable in pop culture.

Her decision to mask them is somewhat of an act of defiance, and confronting gender norms. She said since a majority of African entertainers wearing masks were always men — she wanted to tackle that and celebrate them in a way they couldn’t.

“African women were not part of performance, and didn’t perform in mask,” she said. “Here, they wear celebrated African masks originally carved for important African men to wear during rites of passage, judiciary proceedings, and other formal ceremonies.”

That is partly what inspired the name of the project. She says these women deserve accolades for their cultural impact — particularly the older singers.

“I want them to be celebrated and that’s what a ‘Standing O’ does — give these women what they deserve,” said Vendryes.

Her work on display will be up for sale at the end of the exhibition to raise money for the performing arts center, according to Vendryes.

She said it was important to her that people learn more about these women, but more so get a much needed exposure to community art. She said it was crucial that everyday locals can access the exhibition despite common misconceptions.

“I would love for the younger crowd to see this because then they can grow with it, and when they see an art exhibition like this — they’ll appreciate and feel like they belong there,” she said. “But the bigger picture is, I want the community to know how much more enriched life is when they’re engaged with art.”

“Standing Ovation: The African Diva Project” at Jamaica Performing Arts Center lawn [153-10 Jamaica Ave. between Jamaica and Archer avenues in Jamaica, (718) 618-6170, www.jamaicapac.org]. On display until March 24.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimo[email protected]local.com. Follow her on Twitter @AS1mon.

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