When “i found god in myself: the 40th anniversary for Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls” exhibit premiered, Shange herself attended to view the 20 original works curated by Peter “Souleo” Wright.
By then, she had suffered two strokes and was in a wheelchair. But when she saw the life-size portrait of herself by painter Margaret Rose Vendryes, Shange tried to get out of her wheelchair to show how the tattoos on her body perfectly matched the ones in the painting.
“She was so excited to be there and see what we had done with her work and what we did to make her work visible and take it off the page,” Vendryes said. “She’s more beautiful than the painting.”
Two years later the portrait, the other original works, four new commissions and some non-commissioned pieces will be on view at the African American Museum, opening Oct. 6. The exhibit includes sculptures, paintings, videos and bigger installations.
The show celebrates the play “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which premiered in California in 1974. The play explores themes like black womanhood, sexuality, violence and love in all its forms.
Souleo said the play was “groundbreaking” for him when he first saw it.
“Women of color are a largely underrepresented segment of our community,” he said. “[The play] eloquently and creatively explores the nuances.”
The process from curation to opening night was a long one, but for Souleo, it ultimately paid off.
He began with the “seed of inspiration”—in this case, the text of the play—and then did research on other existing conversations around the topic. He reached out to artists and, based on examples of work they’d submitted, gave them each a poem from the play to guide their creations.
Souleo said he suggested one to three poem options that he “felt the body of work would connect to.”
“It was very much a give and take, a conversation, a dialogue,” he added. “I wanted each artist to feel comfortable with the text so they could put their heart and soul into it.”
Souleo constantly referred to the text throughout the entire process, carrying the book around in his bag everywhere he went.
Kimberly Mayhorn, a multi-disciplinary artist, also relied heavily on the text while she was creating her piece, which is a multi-medium, audio-visual experience. Mayhorn’s works often utilize installation, sculpture, sound and video. The poem she used, “Dark Phrases,” is also the prologue of the play.
“When I was working on the work in the beginning, I knew I wanted to use sound,” she said. “I approached it by creating a music scale grid to play off the melody of what I was feeling what I was reading the words.”
She added that Shange’s writing seems very lyrical, and she wanted to enhance that musicality.
The piece is a “mosaic of voices” with recordings of five women reciting excerpts of the poem and a piano melody layered with the audio. A black satin nightdress is also part of the site-specific installment, “to give a sense of essence of this body,” Mayhorn said.
“I wanted to create this conversation between different textures, the sound you’re able to access and hear,” Mayhorn said. “It’s abstract, so there’s no physical image of a black woman, but what I’m aiming to do is to respond to the melody of the complexities of how ‘Dark Phrases’ was written and how I was responding to it.”
Amber Robles-Gordon, a mixed-media visual artist, was drawn to the show because of the way she connected so personally with the play when she first saw a performance at about 11 years old.
“I remember as a young girl, my mother took me to see this play,” she said. “I remember the energy … the feeling of camaraderie and collective reaction to portions of the play. … I remember coming out of that play and feeling older, maybe a little bit wiser and definitely feeling more connected to women like my mother and the women in my family.”
The poem she was assigned, “A Laying On of Hands,” can be interpreted with themes like religion, being in love and healing, she said.
The sculpture is made of found objects, fabric and other materials attached to chicken wire and divided into the colors of the rainbow. Robles-Gordon used the spectrum of the rainbow and applied each color to each of the seven main characters and their roles in the play. Her works are often large-scale sculpture and installations using textiles and found objects.
“The message I try to convey through my work is that we are all powerful and to think about how we use our resources, our message, our power … and how we transform dust into gold,” she said.
Vendryes’ portrait of Shange is part of her “African Divas” collection, a series of multi-medium paintings celebrating black women like Janelle Monae, Eartha Kitt and Whitney Houston.
The portrait is based off a photo of Shange at the premier of the movie adaptation of the play. The assigned poem “No More Love Poems” is directly incorporated into the piece—the words are written into wax and are arranged like rain down the canvas. To Vendryes, the poem is about “continuity, self-enlightenment and loss.”
“As I started doing research, I realized [Shange] was very much a diva even though she was not a performer like the other ones [in the series],” Vendryes said. “She emerged as her diva even though she’s a writer.”
“I remember seeing for colored girls when it came out in ‘74 and she performed on stage and I was blown away by the willingness she had to bare the soul of troubled women,” she added. “[The themes were] unheard of and quite exciting for young black women like myself.”
In the diva series, each woman is wearing an African mask. In the beginning of the series, Vendryes painted on the masks, but she now uses real masks on top of the painting.
Vendryes had to saw a mask from Cote D’Ivoire in half to accommodate for the position of Shange’s face in profile in the life-size portrait. The other half of the mask is held in Shange’s hand.
Souleo said the artists he worked with each brought a new perspective to the text of the play, which “expanded the universality of the message.”
“No matter where you are in the world, you can connect to this exhibition,” he said. “People are looking to see themselves reflected in media and in the creative arts.”
At the Schomburg exhibition, Souleo said there was one woman who cried after seeing a piece.
“She saw her own experiences in that art piece,” he said. “I think when you see that people are touched by it, getting that emotional, visceral response, it’s really the best thing for me and for the artist.”
Souleo said he is excited to explore more about Philadelphia’s art scene. He added that the African American Museum is historic and it’s important to celebrate it.
“It’s good to support these institutions that support our communities,” he said. “Sometimes there’s nothing like having your own and celebrate that.”
Lian Parsons can be reached at email@example.com and @Lian_Parsons.