On Tuesday, March 29, 2022, Margaret Rose Vendryes, a revered Black queer artist, scholar, educator, and curator, died from acute respiratory failure. She was 67. I first became aware of Margaret when I included her work in my article, “40 amazing black artists to watch in 2014.” When I came across Margaret’s website I was drawn to her works in The African Diva Project. The mixed-media series reimagines images of Black celebrities by adding classical African masks. The ceremonial masks are traditionally worn by men, but Margaret placed them mainly on Black women icons (e.g., Donna Summer and Janet Jackson) along with gender-nonconforming celebrities such as RuPaul and Billy Porter. The series challenges notions of gender, race, sexuality, and power while celebrating the ancestral legacy of these figures.
Soon thereafter, I included Margaret’s work in my touring exhibition, i found god in myself: The 40th Anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls, and more recently in the 2021 exhibition Styling: Black Expression, Rebellion, and Joy Through Fashion. Over the years I learned more about Margaret. She was born on March 16, 1955, in Kingston, Jamaica; her family later settled in Queens, New York. In 1997 she became the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Art History from Princeton University. John Wilmerding, her dissertation advisor, recalls her being, “… one of the most multi-talented and successful students to go through Princeton’s graduate program.” He continued via email, “She made a significant mark as an artist. Her ebullient personality and raucous sense of humor were expressed in her colorful and exuberant figurative collages. She was a persuasive and energetic lecturer and teacher and an indelible colleague, who will be missed in many quarters.”
In 2008 she published Barthé, A Life in Sculpture, the definitive art history book on the groundbreaking sculptor Richmond Barthé, and from 2015 to 2021, she served as chair of the Performing and Fine Arts department and director of the Fine Arts Gallery at York College. She also founded the Southeast Queens Biennial and the Jamaica Summer Artist Residency at York College. Margaret served on the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art Board of Trustees from 2014 to 2022, and on June 1, 2022, she was to begin her new role as Dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.
In every role she held Margaret advocated for marginalized people and celebrated the cultural contributions of the Black and queer communities, pushing for more inclusivity and equity in art institutions and for more diverse permanent collections. Despite her outstanding accomplishments and prominent academic and institutional positions her passing has been largely, and unaccountably, overlooked by numerous art publications. Yet, as the testimonies below confirm, she is immortalized in the hearts and minds of those she impacted within the art world.
The following statements have been edited for length and clarity. All are via email correspondences with the author, unless otherwise noted. A studio visit with Margaret can be watched here.
Alyssa Nitchun, Executive Director, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art
Margaret sat on the [Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art’s] Board Search Committee that hired me. We naturally fell into a rhythm where I had Margaret on speed dial consulting her on my greatest challenges and celebrating even the most mundane of triumphs. Margaret was unflappable, possessing an almost sage-like clarity and a razor-sharp sense of humor. Along with her wife, Jacqueline [Herranz Brooks], Margaret regularly came out for all Leslie-Lohman gatherings; together they were impeccably chic and filled with joie de vivre.
As a trustee and queer artist and educator, Margaret embodied the trajectory and growth of Leslie-Lohman. Her passion for the arts, expertise, and love of our community were critical in shaping Leslie-Lohman into the queer, diverse, responsive, engaged institution that it is today. From our artist fellowship program to the artists we collect and exhibit, Margaret’s vision created a more diverse and rigorous contemporary art museum devoted to today’s LGBTQIA+ artists. Margaret’s legacy will live on abundantly in the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art’s continued growth and expansive vision.
Tammi Lawson, Curator, Art and Artifacts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
I met Margaret 25 years ago as a patron using the collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, while she was working on her dissertation, Representation of the New Negro: The Black Body as Metaphor in Modern American Art and Literature. She was particularly interested in accessing the bevy of works and information we have on sculptor Richmond Barthé. Margaret spent many months devouring correspondence in his archive, reading his artist file and studying his sculptures. Margaret’s stellar research on Barthé [assisted by a yearlong Schomburg Scholar in Residence fellowship] resulted in writing a seminal biography, solidifying her as the Barthé scholar.
We continued our professional relationship even as she became a professor …. Her students loved and respected Margaret because she knew what she was talking about as she generously shared her knowledge.
When I went to graduate school, I called upon Margaret to write a letter of recommendation and she did so with pride and enthusiasm. Margaret was as beautiful in spirit as she was in looks, and had a great smile to go along with a hearty laugh. She just had a can-do attitude and she wanted the best for everyone. She signed off on her emails to me: “All Good Things, M.”
Jacqueline Herranz Brooks, PhD, Adjunct Professor, City University of New York (CUNY)
I met Margaret in 2003 when I was about to graduate with my BA at CUNY and took her writing-intensive class on contemporary American art. That year, I had the opportunity to enjoy her not only as an electrifying critical lecturer and helpful editor, but also as a curator of the exhibition Women on Top: Breaking Barriers, Resisting Limits! In 2004, we coincided on the Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS) conference where I understood Margaret’s take on difficult topics concerning race theory, queer aesthetics, and the limits of authenticity. Our first collaboration was 10 years later, in 2014. Margaret curated my show at the Fine Arts Gallery at York College, titled Maldita Pared: Fotografía y texto de Cuba, and we did an interview for the International Review of African American Art (IRAAA) …. Margaret was generous with her time, space, knowledge, and resources. I read bell hooks’s work from Margaret’s library, and thanks to our conversations and gallery visits I learned about Black women artists working in abstraction and artists of color making conceptual art.
Margaret was game. In 2014, “Punu Janelle,” her then recently finished painting of Janelle Monae from her series The African Diva Project was included in the exhibition Bridging Boundaries: Redefining Diaspora. Margaret was concerned about the shipping costs, and I suggested we use the subway to transport her painting from Queens to the Postcrypt Art Gallery at Columbia University. The next day, Margaret was dressed in black, wearing a pair of hand-painted spectator shoes and fuchsia gloves, ready to take the adventure into the critical performance realm.
It was deliciously comforting living with Margaret. She knew all the songs and dances to them well. We shared spiritual practices and argued about ideological beliefs. She was clever, passionate, and laborious. After we began our romantic relationship in 2010, we were still in love, and got married on July 31, 2020, in the courtyard of the same building I now live in. I miss Margaret in her sexy physical form. Margaret was a great lover.
She was also a hybrid experimenter who created a category for herself as an artist-historian. Last year she created a new body of work using her photography and her stream-of-consciousness reflections on what it means to transform a personal, intimate archive into something public containing new language. It is difficult to frame her legacy. But it is stimulating to think about the scope of her work that will continue to astound. Margaret was honest, coherent, and committed to advocate for change.
Roger C. Tucker III, Founder, Tucker Contemporary Art
Margaret came into my life through my oldest daughter, Ara, during her student days at Princeton. She shared that her professor showed one of my photographs in class. Margaret was the professor. Fast forward to 2011: Ara informed me that Margaret wanted to formally launch her fine art career and suggested that we get together. My art advisory firm, Tucker Contemporary Art, represented her and mounted her first New York City exhibition, 33 ⅓: Pushing the Needle, featuring her iconic The African Diva Project paintings. This began a partnership that lasted a decade as we mounted additional exhibitions across the country, published two catalogues, filmed video interviews, and presented live art talks.
Margaret and I became close friends. I could text her at 6:00 am about a movie I’d just seen and she’d usually text back in five minutes with her take on that movie or recommend I check out something equally as interesting. We bonded over art, books, music, movies, architecture, and interior design. The breadth and depth of her interests, passions, and skills inspired all of us to learn and do more.
The composition and mixed media of her paintings referenced techniques across the entire millennia of art history. Margaret’s remarkable impact in academia and art can be enjoyed through her paintings, is documented in her writing, and is witnessed in the students and artists she taught and mentored over decades.
Margaret was brilliant, fearless, funny, and indefatigable. Her gifts of time, treasure, and talent to students, artists, academicians, and art institutions will be sorely missed. Above all, her African Diva paintings remain the living legacy that I will remember fondly when I think about my good friend, Margaret Rose Vendryes.
Dréya St. Clair Thompson, interdisciplinary artist, speaker, diversity champion, and founder of #TransIsWorthy (as told to the author)
I met Margaret in 2014 at an event I produced. I was at a crossroads in my professional life. I had put a soft pause on my artistic life to focus on nonprofit fundraising and development spaces. At that event I discussed my experience as a gender-nonconforming immigrant from Jamaica and, her being Jamaican-born, she identified with me as a queer Black woman and artist. Soon thereafter she became my mentor. She challenged me to become more rigorous in my practice and to delve deeper into the underpinnings of my artwork.
Eventually she became my first art patron when she bought the piece “Empire” (co-created with Tavet Gillson). Margaret then donated the artwork to the permanent collection at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art and secured me a spot on the Museum’s board.
While I was on the board with Margaret, I witnessed as she pressed what it means to be inclusive in a space that was historically dominated by White males. She advocated for ways to invite people of disadvantaged backgrounds onto a board and to contribute in ways beyond the financial, since she understood that was not feasible for some people. She pushed for people to understand that you can’t just invite Black trans people on a board without understanding the systemic issues that community grapples with and how they would fit in on a board. Building community in the arts as a Black queer person is not easy. But she had a way of making community and a space for others. Before diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives were a trend she was already doing this work.
I am fortunate to have known Margaret. Now, when I look at her work in my home, I feel her presence continuing to mentor me, and for that I am eternally grateful.
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