Reception makes ‘The Diva Difference’

Photo Courtesy of West Orange Arts Council
Above left, artist Denise L. Toney stands in front of a collage she created using African fabrics of South Orange resident and eight-time Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill. Above right, West Orange resident and artist Cassandra Saint-Jean said her painting, ‘Strength & Bravery,’ pictured, represents those qualities of American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — By Debbie L. Hochberg, Correspondent
Black History Month is kicking-off with an artists’ reception on Saturday, Feb. 11,
to celebrate the new installation, “The Diva Difference: Sisters With Voices…Unabashedly Bold…Unapologetically Black,” an art exhibition presented by the West Orange Arts Council. The entire community is invited to the reception to experience work created by local artists while sipping wine and tasting treats catered by local restaurants.

WOAC board member Joyce Harley, who has been instrumental in the production of this exhibit, said in a press release, “Black women in general have a long and well-documented history of being fully engaged in the struggle for liberty and justice for all in America. The similar struggles — often at great risk to their careers — of black women performing artists has yet to be told. This exhibit is a first step toward giving them their due.”
Approximately 15 local artists, whose work is on display, were asked to celebrate black women singers by creating pieces that reflect the artists’ interpretations and visions of their music.

West Orange resident Asher Williams presented his previous works in his native Jamaica and is now having his first showing at the WOAC. He created “Unflinching,” a painting of Erykah Badu, an American singer and songwriter. When asked why he chose her, Williams told the West Orange Chronicle, “Because she is a strong black woman. She is great and really stands up for women’s rights and human rights. There are hidden messages in her music.”

Cassandra Saint-Jean, also a West Orange resident, characterizes her pieces as mixed media, abstract, and told the West Orange Chronicle she chose Nina Simone, who was an American singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, to represent in her work because of her strength and bravery. In fact, Saint-Jean’s piece is titled “Strength & Bravery.”
“She was an amazing singer and activist and she fought for civil rights so this is an homage to her strength and bravery,” Saint-Jean said.

In describing her piece, she said, “The three black marks represent strength and the way I apply the paint on the canvas looks like it was walked on and that is like saying ‘thank you’ for the walk she walked.”
Saint-Jean also included parts of Simone’s pictures in the painting. “I mostly can see her eyes,” she said. “I like to leave it open to interpretation for the viewer, for whoever is looking at the painting, so maybe they can remember something about her, looking at her eyes through the painting. The blue represents our freedom.”
This art exhibition also features a portrait of eight-time Grammy Award winner Lauryn Hill by artist Denise L. Toney, which is a collage she created by using African fabrics. “Hill grew up in South Orange and still lives there,” said WOAC board member and gift shop manager Liana Torrice to the West Orange Chronicle. “Her songs are about our own community and about growing up in this community.”

The show also features the work of WOAC members Kim Alexander-Cook, Dwight Carter, Jose Manuel Cruz, Jasmine Elmore, Maria Estrela, Anthony Gartmond, Carol T. Jenkins, Theodore Jenkins, Barbara Motley, Ron Powell and Onnie Strother. Installed by gallerist Rey Arvelo, the pieces emphasize the importance of color and the inspiration of music for the artists. A special feature of this show, on loan from the private collection of Celeste Bateman, is a photograph of Dee Dee Bridgewater by M. Malcolm King.

For this showing, the WOAC Gift Shop is highlighting hand-crafted home accents and bath products using the brilliant colors of Africa, along with hand-beaded portraits featuring black women. “We are celebrating Black History Month with Edith Browne’s handmade necklaces using beads imported from Ghana,” said Torr
ice in a press release. “On Sunday afternoons, visitors can take part in weekly workshops and gallery tours.”
The West Orange Arts Center is located at 551 Valley Road, West Orange. The artists’ reception is on Saturday, Feb. 11, from noon to 4 p.m. The installation will be available for viewing through Saturday, March 4. WOAC Gallery and Gift Shop hours are Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays, from noon to 3 p.m.; and by appointment.
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