Professor Margaret Rose Vendryes. Photograph by Anthony Barbosa.

Meet art historian, curator, artist, and Artwork Archive collector Margaret Rose Vendryes.

In 1997, Margaret was the first Black student to be awarded a doctoral degree in art history from Princeton. Today, she’s a tenured professor and the Chair of the Department of Performing and Fine Arts at CUNY’s York College. She’s also a practicing artist, as well as a curator and the Director of the York College Art Gallery. 

Margaret’s art practice is imbued with ritualized, performative gestures. For more than 15 years, she’s been developing her African Divas project — a series of paintings depicting pop culture’s most iconic Black femme vocalists, posed dramatically in African masks. 

Her recent work incorporates actual African masks from her own collection, masks whose makers are anonymous, but which were used in ceremonial rituals tied to ancestry and the spiritual world. “I'm trying to get the best craftsmanship, I can,” Margaret says. “The most stylistic and iconic graphic object, based on some classical and traditional forms. They become a part of my work.” 

Diva is derived from the Italian diva, which means deity, and Margaret is remixing a new iconography in these portraits, culled from various art historical movements, as well as African tribal tradition. Figures seem suspended in mid-air, a la Robert Longo’s infamous Men in the City series. As full-body portraits, they possess a regalness that speaks of John Singer Sargent. Andy Warhol’s cult of celebrity manifests in each subject — there’s Janelle Monae, Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Beyonce, etc. — all larger-than-life personas, all performers, all storytellers. 

African masks are typically made and worn by men. “Only one group actually masks women on the entire African continent. They are danced by men, even when the identity of the deity or ancestor that they're dancing is female,” Margaret says. 

By reclaiming the mask for her Divas, Margaret assails traditional gender norms. It’s a subversive queer-feminist statement that’s also celebratory. “It's the gesture,” Margaret explains, “I am interested in the performer, which is a persona. That's what African masks are about — the human person underneath that mask becomes a persona during the masquerade. They are separated from all the living beings around them. They become very important, very unique, and the total focus in that moment. Until the mask is taken off, they are something else.”

We sat down with Margaret to find out more about her collection, her artistic practice, and what it was like to leave a career in banking to pursue her passion for the arts. 

Left: Margaret Rose Vendryes, Ejaham Chaka - Chaka Khan, 36 x 36 inches. Right: Margaret Rose Vendryes, Dan Leela - Leela James, 40 x 30 inches.

AA: What do you collect and why? 

MRV: The collection that I really am attached to is my African figures. And the figures that I have, I’ve been able to acquire on a limited pocketbook. I own some very, very important and well-made objects that have been used and have a story to tell — one that takes them to their purpose in Africa — the reason why they were carved and put together in the first place. Those objects are what I would consider my collection, even though I do have some masks that are pretty spectacular.

I collect things, sometimes based on size, but, as long as they're all made in Africa, I'm okay with that. I'm not so worried about what the high-end African art collectors worry about — whether or not there's any African sweat on there. Almost all African art is utilitarian; it has a job to do.  Everything that is made is made with a purpose in mind. Now they're making things with the purpose in mind to send it to market. 

For me, the question is: is it well made? I can't give attribution to these objects, because they're not signed, and I didn't buy them from the maker. Who knows how many hand-me-downs it took before they got to me, via a thrift shop or eBay or whatever. But, because I teach African art, and I've spent a lot of time looking at those objects in museums, I understand what I'm looking at.

I also collect contemporary art by Black artists. My biggest heartbreak was when I passed on a piece by Wangechi Mutu. I was in graduate school and $900 was a lot of money for a single mother with two kids. I just couldn’t justify it — I had groceries to buy. So, I walked away from it and she took off within two years after that. 

More recently, I've been deaccessioning a little bit and sending pieces to Swann Galleries’ Black art auction. I just don't have the walls anymore. There are some things I won't part with. But, I'm also thinking of ways to support Black artists, especially women — most of what I've collected outside of the African masks is by Black women artists — and it occurred to me that most of them don't have auction records. Auction records are really significant in establishing an artist’s market.

For example, Nona Faustine did a series in which she took pictures of herself naked in white shoes, and she's this big Black woman. I have one of her photographs and I said to myself, “You know, it's time for you to have an auction record.” And the auction house agreed with me. 

Until recently, Swann was the only auction house with dedicated African American art auctions twice a year — Tyler Fine Art has entered the Black art auction market. Swann has a big reputation for that and has done really well. I've sold a couple of things through Swann from my collection. And they basically said, “Yes, send it on. We're ready for you.”

In my opinion, that's what we need. Nona had no auction record at that point. So, it's time — she deserves it.

Margaret Rose Vendryes, Bwa Melba I - Melba Moore, 22 x 30 inches, Monoprint.

AA: Your career in academia has also been a series of “firsts” — can you share a bit about your journey to becoming a professor?

MRV: I actually entered college late — when I graduated from Amherst College, I already had two children. They were both at my graduation. So, I was an older student. And, because of that, I had a sense of myself and what I wanted to do with my future, but I also did not have a lot of choices, because I had a family. 

So, the idea of going to art school was out of the question. As a matter of fact, I didn't go on to graduate school right away. I was actually in banking for five years. And they loved me in banking — they wanted me to move up the ladder. But, after five years, I just couldn’t do the pantyhose and the pumps and that whole uniform of the corporate world anymore. To fit in and to be effective in the corporate world requires you to rethink your entire persona and I just didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.

But I had an advisor at Amherst College who convinced me that I could always paint, but that I was needed in the world of art history because I was interested in African American art. At that time, Black artists did not have much written about them. When I was at Amherst, I was the only African American in that program.

I wrote my thesis on Archie Motley. I was supported with a research grant, and so I got to go to Chicago, I had dinner at his son's house and saw his paintings on his son's walls. And then I was at the Chicago Historical Society reading this man's letters — that was my introduction to primary material, and I realized, “Oh, I like this, I can do this.”

After I graduated and left banking, my now ex-husband moved our family to New Orleans. He ended up not staying, but I convinced Tulane University to give me a stipend to study — which was not easy — and I entered graduate school there. Again, I was the only African American in the art history program. 

At Tulane, I had my very first mentor, who was also a woman. That was pretty important for me. I learned a lot from her about how to teach, more than anything else. So, when I was ready to finish there, I applied to Princeton — it was the only school I applied to and I was accepted. I was the first Black Ph.D. from Princeton University in Art and Archaeology in 1997 — in a program that started in 1882. 

There was another African American in the program before me who finished several years after me. Most of the Ph.D. folks don't finish for maybe seven or eight years, but I finished quickly because I was older and anxious to start my career — I needed to get into the professorial ranks. Amherst hired me for a year as a substitute for somebody on sabbatical, then Princeton hired me for a year or two because they had nobody to teach African and African American art. Now they do. 

It was an interesting position to be in because the librarians would come to me with the books that were potential titles to purchase. And since they never had anyone concentrating on African American art before, they didn't have any books on the topic in a very, very extensive and elite art library. 

It was great because I got every book you could ever think of. And, they bought them, because they have money. As a matter of fact, they had practically no African American artists in their collection — until I got there. 

My mentor at Princeton, John Wilmerding, is an Americanist and taught the survey of American art. There were never any African American artists in the survey — until I was his preceptor. He treated me really well and took really good care of me.

AA: And this entire time, you were also developing your studio practice.

MRV: That’s true — I had always thought of myself as a painter, but I knew darn well that I wasn't going to be able to support myself as a painter, at least not immediately. I’ve only taken four painting classes in my entire life. What I mostly learned was how to use the materials safely, because back then they were toxic. Now, it's not as scary. I also learned how to compose things; how to think about space within the frame. I've kind of pushed myself along since then independently. 

I have a show coming up at Calabar Gallery in Harlem that opens on May 29th. The show will be on view there for one month. 

At the moment, I'm working on bringing forward a backburner project that is a complete departure from painting. There's no painting involved at all. I call it the "Unmade project." I’ve been taking photographs of unmade hotel beds that I've slept in for the last ten years or so. Just the sheets, like a landscape of these unmade hotel beds. They have to be hotel beds, and it has to be white sheets. You know, a lot of stories happen in hotel beds and in the sheets — these things have stories to tell, but only I know the stories. They're my stories. 

I'm a SHIFT resident right now for the Elizabeth Foundation, which is a platform for art workers who are also artists. I was nominated for it because I direct the York College Fine Art Gallery. So I decided that I wanted to present this body of work, but I wanted to do it as an alias. 

I am trying to remove as many identifiers that allow or push people to read the work in a particular way. I don't want to be raced, I don't want to be gendered, I don't want my age to be known. I don't want my Jamaican background to be known — I don't want any of that stuff. I want people to engage with the work from a neutral place. 

Margaret Rose Vendryes, Unmade - San Diego, 2021. Wood frame, hand-etched acrylic, photograph on watercolor paper.

AA: Black artists have gained a lot of traction in the art market recently. What are your thoughts on that?

MRV: It's about damn time. I mean, the wait has been long enough.

I do see those spaces that had nobody Black on their roster until Black Lives Matter lit up. That kind of correction should be appreciated, though, because not everyone is reacting to it. So I feel like we should give some respect to those who say, “Oh, good heavens! You know, we weren't even paying attention.”

There's a lot of art being made. You know, not all of it’s good, but enough of it is good. Then enough of the good stuff isn't even being given any attention. It takes a great effort to become part of that story and to truly enter the market. 

I'm very fortunate because my art doesn't have to support me. I never thought it would and I've never asked it to. So as long as my art practice can support itself through the sales that I do get, I'm good, so there's no pressure. I don't push myself to find venues anymore. I'm kind of at that place now where I'm waiting for them to find me. 

I was at the Brooklyn Museum to see the Lorraine O'Grady show. And I met Lorraine when I was teaching at Wellesley, around the same time when she was donating her papers to their archives because that’s her alma mater. So I drove her around quite a bit and got to know her while she was visiting Boston. I went to see her show at the Brooklyn Museum, which is quite lovely, and different. And, as I was leaving, here comes Lorraine.

She's in her 80s now, but her mind is still sharp. She knew exactly who I was and we haven't seen each other in years. She said to me, “I've been watching you on Instagram!” So that was really validating. It seems like a lot of women artists don’t get proper attention until they’re Lorraine’s age. 

So I'm still too spry, you know, because I'm still making new work. I'm not like Betye Saar who has so much work in her studio that she doesn't need to make anything new. I'm not there yet.

AA: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

MRV: I'll share some advice that I got from Elizabeth Catlett, who's now gone, unfortunately. She was a major African American artist and printmaker — I met her at the Amistad Research Center when I was working there in New Orleans. She said, “Don't turn down opportunities to exhibit. Just make it happen.”

If you have somebody who gives you an opportunity to show, then you have to show. I have followed that advice, and she was right. Once you've decided that you have something that you're really proud of, show it. Be proactive in finding opportunities to show it and invest the money if you have to, just not more than you can afford. 

Also, talk about your work, and know how to talk about your work. I'm fortunate because I'm in the academic world, and I'm around practicing artists as well, who teach studio art classes with me. So I've been very lucky to have some really smart artists like Nicole Awai look at my work. She would say, “Okay, I see that you're doing this, and you're doing that.” And, she was right. So I have acquired language specifically for my work. And, I have Nicole’s work in my collection too.

Margaret Rose Vendryes, Naomi (left) and Jessye (right), Digital Collage Prints, Ultrachrome archival inks on acid-free cotton rag watercolor paper, 18 x 24 inches, Edition of 5 + 2 APs 

AA: In general, the art world has always been quite homogenous. How have you dealt with that?

MRV: For me, the question is: Why can't I claim my French-Dutch heritage as easily as I can claim my African heritage? Is it because I was disallowed? That “one drop” rule? Because I shouldn't be this light if I was only African.

That’s a double-edged sword, too. I came up at a time where light-skinned Black people were favored — because our appearance was less disturbing. We could integrate a little bit more easily. At the same time, you have issues happening within the African American communities where people assume that if you're light-skinned, you therefore think you're somehow better than the rest of us. So it's like a not a great place to be sometimes, this sort of in-between person. 

If you look at people like Angela Davis, we become even more militant because of that — because we know we will be allowed to speak and will be heard, just because we don't make white people feel as uncomfortable as our very dark-skinned brethren. I probably have more baggage around that than most because I'm an academic. I've been absorbing all of this information and absorbing so many people in my life for so long now that I am at a place where it's not just about me anymore. 

I have two Black sons. They're much darker than me because my first husband was a dark-skinned Black man. I had also decided early on — and I think what helped me was that I didn't start college until I was a little older — that all those white people needed to know me. 

Every chance I got, I wrote papers about Black artists. I wrote papers about Black lives, Black history, and I forced them to read those things. You know, I made a point of being as Black as I could be while I was learning. I went to these precious schools, where the future leaders of this country were my peers. And I could change their attitude about what it means to interact and to invite a Black person to be a part of their life.

That's what I could do as an individual. A lot of folks will say, “I'm just one person and what can I do?” Well, you know, I'm very, very fortunate that I was given entrée into these academic environments where I could reach people that folks who don't get there won't reach.

AA: Navigating those worlds requires some type of performance as well, would you agree?

MRV: Yes. In a way, both my art and my other work have all been about performance. And that’s where the diva term comes into play. I think a diva is a positive thing to be. I see a diva as someone who has such high self-esteem. After all, it is not an easy thing to get out on a stage alone. 

The solo artists, who get out on the stage alone and do their thing, hoping that whoever's watching is gonna like it are really brave. You can make or break yourself out there. That takes a level of self-reliance and self-esteem that makes you a diva. A diva knows what she wants and thinks she deserves it. 

You know, a lot of us never get there. It's hard to get to a place where you really believe, “I deserve this.” [To get to a place] where you can act a certain way and ask certain things of others. When you believe that, you carry yourself in a certain way. When you actually believe that what you need and want is deserved and that it should come your way — that is a positive definition of a diva. 

This title is also a separator — you become an exception. If you take on that term, it carries some connotations. Some of these personalities that I have divafied in my paintings might even take issue with me referring to them as a diva. I put African in front of it because the masking aspect of it shifts the diva persona back to the continent — because the performers that mask in Africa are divas. They are meant to be divas. They are exceptional. If they weren't, they wouldn't don the mask. It's not an opportunity that goes to just anyone. 

Learn more about Margaret Rose by clicking here.

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