The following piece was originally written by Robert Dilworth, Professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island in 1999. It has been adapted to reflect the work that is being shown in this portfolio.
We all know the music of black people. Music that comes from the deep bowels of the black soul. Music that began in a distant land, its syncopation and rhythm redefined in the fields of the southern delta in times almost forgotten. Music played in the juke joints and crowded shacks along narrow winding Mississippi roads. Music re-tempo-ed and re-issued to fill the dance halls and night clubs of northern cities. Music modified and echoed by almost every known popular musician. Some called it Boogie Woogie, some called it Bebop, some called it Jazz, some called it Blues, some call it Hip Hop and some call it House. It all comes from the same place. It all resonates with the same cultural and emotional urgency. The souls of black folk remain deeply embedded in this music. The soul of America is irrefutably shaped by it.
However, little is known about those black women in history who sang classical music. Those women who beat all odds to appear in recital halls and on operatic stages of the world. Who, through sheer talent and tenacity, out-maneuvered America's social and racial schizophrenia to be counted among the most gifted of classical singers. By all accounts they were exceptional. From Miriam Anderson, who was proclaimed by Toscanini as having a voice that is heard only once every hundred years, to Jessye Norman whose Olympian voice catapulted her to international fame in the early 80s. And there were others. In the nineteenth century – Sissieretta Jones, Elizabeth Taylor-Greenfield, Marie Selika, and the Hyers sisters, to those who came later such as Anne Brown, Camilla Williams, Dorothy Manor, Abbie Mitchell, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, and Kathleen Battle, to name a few. Thus, the wave of black operatic and recital stars was relentless.
In Morgan Monceaux's collection of oils on canvas entitled “And So I Sing”, he pays homage to the women who were triumphant in this music. “Divas”, he calls them, and divas they are.
But what is a diva, a black diva in particular? What separates her from all other singers, many of whom sing the same songs but do not reach “diva” status? In other words, what are the primary ingredients in becoming and remaining a diva? The textbook definition is taken from the Latin word meaning “goddess, or divine one”. These questions led me to think of ten points that all the women above and many others share. To me, in every case they (1) made themselves from scratch, (2) in their own way formed and defined the black female stage presence, (3) sacrificed all for their music, (4) confessed to no crimes of the heart, (5) instilled remembrance, (6) had no fear, (7) committed to love, (8) were real, (9) undressed and then re-outfitted the soul, and (10) created a safe harbor in us all.
They each are not just a mere object de luxe, as many would have them, but a particular embodiment of black cultural heritage. In short, they are a necessary part of defining the black cultural whole.
Throughout twentieth-century America artists have turned to musical forms such as jazz, blues, and classical music to inspire specific artworks or to be the models from which a work is shaped. Monceaux often uses music to provide a ground for his paintings, drawings and prints. This group of oil paintings testifies to his (then) ever-expanding range of images based on the continuing theme of Black Music America. Like Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Archibald Motley, and a host of other black artists before him, Monceaux explores and reconstructs the psychological underpinnings that has given rise to black music and that makes it so enduring. Using the elements of visual design and printmaking, then following through different aspects of the entire series with pastels and oils, he sifts through the interior spaces of black musical culture to form the corpus of “Divas”. Collectively, they constitute a world within itself.
These scenic portraits, categorized as “Divas Three”, place the subject in full professional perspective. The drama of stance, stage and costume are meticulously structured in support of the moment– the diva emerging mid-note, opulent and composed.
Clearly, Monceaux has given us an alternate vision of the “Diva”. These are not just depictions of singers who made musical history but women whose lives confronted and exemplified the conflicts of a world constantly changing. Perhaps the diva can be best summed up in a poem by Langston Hughes. In Down and Out Hughes writes:
If you loves me
Help me when I'm down an' out
If you loves me
Help me when I'm down an' out.
Cause I'm a po' gal that
Nobody gives a damn about.