Beau McCall’s Collage

Iconic singer Dionne Warwick has reemerged as the unlikely successor to ousted former clapback royalty Chrissy Teigen. The dethroned “Queen of Twitter’s grand return to the platform she used to rule supreme, has been ceremoniously overshadowed by a new voice of reason and brutal honesty.

Warwick’s overnight success as a national treasure turned viral sensation on a platform known for mercilessly devouring its own, swiftly became a trending item that caught the attention of a sleepy culture that appreciated the re-awakening. 

Black Twitter has never been more alive with the infusion of the sparkling 80-year-old’s deposits of words of wisdom that include shoutouts to unsuspecting celebrities or witty summations that never disappoint. 

And since we’re embodying an era that relies heavily on engaging deliveries of what’s hot and relevant, it makes sense to transform the priceless gifts from Dionne Warwick into various interpretations of visual art that reflect the social vitality of these Twitter moments. 

Harlem-based art curator Souleo, who’s gained recognition for masterful exhibitions and culturally-relevant collaborations with the New York Public Library, Columbia University and Newark Museum of Art to name a few, was promptly recruited by Newark Arts to help curate an artistic homage to the “Queen of Twitter’s” catalogue of hits in honor of their 20th anniversary celebrations. 

Souleo’s mission was to gather a group of renowned artists, including button-maven, Beau McCall, who created button-molded pieces, each representing Warwick’s viral tweets, Newark native art historian and curator, Lavette Ballard, who crafted an installation titled after Warwick’s 1967 hit “I Say A Little Prayer,” in response to one of Warwick’s viral tweet.  And interdisciplinary artist and cultural worker, Dianne Smith, who based her interactive installation “What The World Needs Now” on two poignant tweets from the Queen referencing the attack on the U.S. Capitol and the tragic police shooting of Daunte Wright

Souleo, the visionary director of the exhibition, duly committed to the themes of bringing Warwick’s legendary tweets “to life in art form,” and tasked each of the  commissioned artists to use their assigned tweets as inspiration for their presentations. 

When asked about how their initial reverence for Dionne Warwick dictated the tone of each of their pieces, both Lavette Ballard and Dianne Smith detail their pathways.

“I grew up listening to Dionne Warwick music in my home,” Ballard says. “My connections to her are very similar, I was born in East Orange, went to school in Newark and Irvington, and most importantly both of us grew up in the black church. Ms. Warwick’s first artistic experience was singing in the church and my first Visual art experience was creating art for the church. This info is what helped direct my vision of creating an experience secular to the black church, with a backdrop of a visual timeline of the African American female experience highlighting Ms. Warwick’s life within.” 

Dianne Smith also admits she grew up listening to the music of Dionne Warwick during a time when “there was not a lot of representation of Blackness in America.” She also recalls that “whenever an artist of color would appear on the various talk shows, the entire family would gather around to watch.” 

Smith further elaborates, “I’m talking about the mid-1960s to 1970s. At the time, the country was entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement. Although Ms. Warwick was not at the forefront of participating in the protest and marches as we know them, she was very much a disrupter. I wanted to portray that within the installation. Her voice was essential during that era and continues to be. Ms. Wawrick created history in her own right and often was a trailblazer and the first in an industry not designed for a female vocalist such as herself. I intersect her music with these pivotal moments in our history as Black people in America. In addition, her recent commentary on the pandemic, social justice, and civil unrest through her tweets is an extension of her activism, and it acts as a springboard to reflect on where we are today. I’m careful not to limit my creative approach solely from the place of being a fan. However, I pay homage to a National Treasure who continues to lift this country, thus the world, through her voice”  

We also caught up with art curator extraordinaire Souleo and got some insight on what shaped the visual artistry of the exhibition and what the hopes are for its potential cultural impact now and in the future. 

Q. How excited were you to be approached by Newark Arts to create a wondrous exhibit centered around the iconic Dionne Warwick’s notable Twitter presence? 

  1. I was very excited to work with Newark Arts again. I previously worked with them when my exhibition “i found god in myself: a celebration of Ntoazke Shange’s for colored girls…” was the headliner for the festival in 2017. They are an excellent team that is committed to amplifying the Newark arts community. So when they asked me what ideas I had I started thinking about their theme of creative resilience, the Newark arts community and at the same time I was watching Ms. Warwick go viral on Twitter. Knowing she has such strong roots in Newark and that she exemplifies creative resilience I figured it made perfect sense to spotlight Dionne Warwick, her legacy, and her message of wisdom, wit, and social consciousness during these challenging times.

Q. How tricky was it merging the revolutionary impact of social media with the entertaining qualities of a living legend who is brutally honest in an endearing way? 

A The challenging aspect was ensuring that we didn’t reduce Ms. Warwick’s legacy to being a Twitter phenomenon. We wanted to also touch on her entire legacy as a legendary entertainer and humanitarian. This is where the archival material in the exhibition helps to round out the show with pieces from her personal collection and from my own such as the  documentary Dionne Warwick: Then Came You (My Music), her albums, books, a couple of costume pieces, concert programs, magazines, letters and awards from local and national government,  and a timeline that includes highlights from her life and career. Plus, the artists did such a great job of respectfully interpreting her tweets. For example, both Dianne Smith and Lavett Ballard include references in their work to the civil rights and black lives matter movements that contextualize Ms. Warwick as a figure who is an activist in her own unique way.

Q. What did you strive to highlight and celebrate with this exhibit and how did you endeavor to collaborate with other artists to create masterpieces? 

  1. I strived to celebrate Ms. Warwick as an example on how to be yourself, how to age gracefully, how to forge intergenerational bonds, how to use your music or social media or whatever creativite tool you have to bring joy, inspiration, and knowledge to people. The artists helped bring this message to life. I started by giving them an overview of my concept on the show and suggesting a few tweets to each artist that I felt went along with their practice. Some artists wanted other options so we had some discussions around what tweet they felt most comfortable with. And then they submitted a proposal and from there it was just a matter of trusting their vision. And I am so happy to say that each of them went above and beyond!

Q. Was already being a fan of Dionne Warwick a creative incentive, and how did that inform your input and direction? 

  1. It was an incentive. I like to say that I’ve admired her from afar for many years and in working on this project I got to dig deeper into her legacy and I’m even more of a fan now. Seeing how she came to such international prominence during the civil rights movement lets me know that I have no excuse today during the black lives matter movement but to continue to create and to give back as she has done. 

Q. What do you hope the lasting effects will be for this whimsical exhibition in terms of the major takeaways and historical notation? 

  1. As with all of my shows I hope people leave inspired, having learned something new, and in this particular case, I do hope they laugh a lot as well. There’s a lot of joy to be found in this exhibition thanks to Ms. Warwick’s hilarious tweets. I also hope that the show helps to continue to amplify Ms. Warwick’s legacy and the rich Newark arts scene.

“Dionne Warwick: Queen of Twitter” Art Exhibit will continue it’s run at the Newark Arts Festival until Nov. 20. 

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