African-American artist’s exhibit goes beyond race

Sometimes the best way to make a statement about African-Americans is to take everything African-American out of the statement.

That was Lolita Develay’s thinking as she decided which of her art collections to feature at the African-American Heritage Exhibit 2013 that opens today and runs through April 18 at the Las Vegas City Hall Chamber Gallery. An artist’s reception is set for 3 to 5 p.m. today.

The artist and University of Nevada, Las Vegas master’s student chose "Window Shopping," a collection of paintings depicting mannequins in boutique windows at Crystals at CityCenter.

Fifty-one-year-old Develay, who is African-American and the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, has other collections that address race, specifically her "Living Dolls" paintings. Each work creates a hybrid of a celebrity’s face on the body of another celebrity of a different ethnicity.

For instance, in "Brass PenNay" Penelope Cruz’s Latin facial features are matched up with Naomi Campbell’s toned, African-American supermodel body. In "Beck Beck Heroic and Sublime," African-American model Tyson Beckford’s face is attached to English soccer sensation David Beckham’s underwear-clad body. "Beyond Pam" features Pamela Anderson’s demure derriere and double DD breasts with the eyes of Beyonce, whose voluptuous body has become just as popular as the one-time Baywatch babe’s.

"I mixed up the races," says Develay, because "we live in a society where racial lines are disappearing. We’re developing our own American race and it can be anyone from anywhere."

To feature this collection in the upcoming exhibit, though, would have been too obvious. She chose a more subtle approach.

"Window Shopping" can be looked at as a piece about consumerism. The mannequins, after all, are decorated in garments and accessories out of financial reach for your average American. But, it’s more than that.

The mannequins, which are shiny objects with no racial identities, can be representative of anyone. The real message in this body of work is that Americans, regardless of gender, ethnicity or wealth, have a desire for material things.

"I’m a black girl, yes, but I mostly feel like I’m an American," Develay says. "These paintings don’t have race at the core. They have humans at the core."

Develay took photos of the window displays from such luxury fashion boutiques as Roberto Cavalli, Versace and Christian Dior and then used watercolors and oils to re-create them. The faces have a sheen to them, the chandeliers behind the mannequins sparkle and the jewelry featured throughout shimmers. It’s all reflective, literally and figuratively.

Develay is from California, has worked in advertising and once pursued a degree in genetic research. Her original foray into the art world was through photo-realism. She gave it up when other artists criticized her paintings that looked like photographs, asserting that paintings should look like paintings.

She bought into it and ended up in the corporate world, doing visual merchandising for Estee Lauder’s displays in such department stores as Macy’s and Neiman Marcus. The further she climbed the advertising ladder, the fewer black faces she saw.

"The groundwork hadn’t been laid for them," she says.

That was a couple of decades ago. She recognizes there’s still work to be done, but hopes people are aware of more common ground between the races than differences.

If people take in her work at the African-American Heritage Exhibit and are surprised not to find an Afro-centric painting, she’d like it to result in enlightenment.

"People have preconceived notions, but if someone looks at it and says, ‘Wow, black people like this, too,’ that in and of itself is what it’s about," she says. "We’re all Americans at this point. These are our values."

Contact Xazmin Garza at or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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