She speaks to us about celebrating real, beautiful women
Imagine a radiant black woman pictured larger than life, her eyes, lips, and afro exquisitely detailed in rhinestones so that she sparkles and shines. She is a vision of luminosity that draws you in, set upon a pastiche of vintage patterns that evoke the spirit of the 1970s. She is the Foxy Brown and Beverly Johnson residing within black women everywhere.
She is the vision of African-American artist Mickalene Thomas, whose magnificent portraits have been taking the art world by storm for the past two decades. Drawing from a wealth of art historical and pop culture sources, Thomas creates mesmerising paintings, collages, photographs, videos, or installations that stand as a testament to female beauty, sexuality, and power.
Thomas’ layered portraits, interiors, and landscape works explore the relationship between representation, identity, and gender, providing a dynamic space for reflection, contemplation, and celebration of the female form – one that is infinitely attuned to the ways in which a work of art can become both a public and private space for communion.
“All of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality” – Mickalene Thomas
2018 has begun with a rousing start, with Thomas joining Robert Colescott and Kerry James Marshall for Figuring History, now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibition, which brings together three generations of contemporary American artists, speaks to the canon of western art, which has long ignored or marginalised the contributions of people of colour. Here, Thomas, Colescott, and Marshall reclaim this vital space, offering exciting perspectives on black culture and history.
On April 7, Thomas will present “Do I Look Like a Lady”, a 12-minute, two-channel video collage of iconic figures like Josephine Baker, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Whitney Houston as part of You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences at the North Caroline Museum of Art in Raleigh. The exhibition will also include four silkscreen works of pioneer African-American women including Naomi Sims, the first black supermodel, and Diahann Carroll, one of the first black actresses to break the colour barrier in Hollywood.
If you can’t travel to the shows, the work can just as easily come to you in the stunning illustrated book Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs (Aperture, 2015). The book takes you on a guided tour through Thomas’ world, one that draws inspiration from sources as diverse as 70s actress Vonetta McGee, French painter Édouard Manet, Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee, and Malian studio photographer Malick Sidibé. Muse also includes a conversation between Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems, whose 1994 exhibition at the Portland Art Museum was a turning point for Thomas as a young artist.
Here, Thomas shares the people and experiences that informed her work, providing insight into her process and perspective that has made her one of the most influential artists of our time.
BLAXPLOITATION FILMS PROVED TO BE AN EARLY INFLUENCE
Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, during the 1970s, Thomas was first exposed to art through after-school programmes at the Newark Museum and the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Her work channels a host of references, from the vibrant patterns and colour palettes of the era to the sensual female forms of Blaxploitation films to create a kaleidoscopic series of portraiture.
“The aesthetics of my surroundings at the time had a powerful impact on me as an artist,” Thomas reveals. “There’s a clear sense of nostalgia in my work, and my practice has always demanded personal reflection and inspiration.”
Thomas was raised by her mother, Sandra Bush – who modelled during the 1970s and instilled a way of being that the artist carries to this day. She explains, “I come from a strong matriarchal family that had an amazing sense of style, strength, elegance, and self-awareness. These attributes strongly influenced my way of being and my desire to create the images I make today.”
The domestic environments of her childhood played a role in shaping her view, whether it was the home in which she lived or the places she visited as a child. “The urban aesthetic is extremely visceral and informs a great deal of my practice, such as the tableaus that I create,” she says. “These spaces I construct aren’t necessarily a direct replica of the places I grew up in, but they are definitely meant to behave as a pastiche of various spaces that I recall as a child. In this way, the aesthetics that I present are direct references to home.”
These homes exist as an extension of and an escape from the outside world. “The 1970s were a tumultuous time for many people,” Thomas recalls. “There were many, mostly marginalised, communities mobilising to create liberated spaces for themselves. All of these black, queer, women-centred communities protested against conservatism and the oppressive nature of tradition. And amidst all of this upheaval, great music, fashion, and art were created.”
The joy of each work by Thomas is the ways in which it brings together all of these formative experiences and transcends the limits of time and space, reminding us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Her work serves as a bridge between the past, present, and future, drawing us through time so that we may recognise a piece of ourselves in the work, even if it does not necessarily reflect our biographical experiences.
THE WORK OF CARRIE MAE WEEMS WAS A TURNING POINT
In the mid-80s, Thomas moved to Portland to attend school, where she studied pre-law and Theater Arts. In 1994, she saw an early exhibition of the work of Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Art Museum, which became a turning point in Thomas’ life.
“Carrie’s show was one of the first times I’d seen contemporary work by a black woman,” she remembers. “At the time, she was showing her Kitchen Table Series and it was one of those fortuitous moments that suddenly made me aware of just how effectively you can take your experiences as a person and channel them into your art. She’s a great storyteller, and until then, it wasn’t something I’d ever fully realised or thought about in the context of my life and identity.”
Inspired by the Weems’ photographs, Thomas decided to apply to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and use her experiences, impressions, and sensibilities as the basis for her work.
SHE USES PHOTOGRAPHY AS A JUMP-OFF POINT FOR EVERYTHING ELSE
While attending the Yale School of Art, Thomas enrolled in a photography course with David Hilliard, who instructed her to explore the medium by taking pictures of her mother. This experience grounded Thomas in a practice that she has used ever since, providing a means of entrée into the work by looking at herself, her friends, and loved ones through the camera.
She explains, “My photographs usually serve as the starting point for my other works. There are certain spontaneous elements that I can’t completely achieve in a painting but I know I can capture through other mediums like photography and collage. When I first started producing work it was easier to turn the lens on myself and use my own body to convey the ideas I was interested in. It allowed me to discover what the camera could do while also thinking critically about the subject (myself) without complicating the situation by bringing in someone else.”
By experimenting with herself as the subject of the work, Thomas deepened her connection to the female figure and the way it could speak through an array of visceral non-verbal cues, such as body language and facial expressions. “I had to figure out how to portray my body on my own terms, and this has been something I continue to think about when I put other women in front of the camera,” she reveals. “Exploring self-portraiture prepared me to think honestly about what it means to be the subject of the image without being reduced to the object of the viewer.”
“Exploring self-portraiture prepared me to think honestly about what it means to be the subject of the image without being reduced to the object of the viewer” – Mickalene Thomas
RHINESTONES, SEQUINS, & GLITTER ARE INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT DETAILS
The work may begin with the photograph, but it does not stop there as Thomas adds layers of materials to the picture plane. Rhinestones, sequins, glitter, oil, acrylic, enamel, silkscreen, varnish, and paper collaged out of magazines and pattern books come together in a dazzling panoply of materials that is as captivating as the subject itself.
“Materiality is one of the most significant aspects of my practice, and my choice of material is meant to represent the notions of artifice, constructed ideas, and how we adorn ourselves and our environments,” Thomas explains. “I like things to be textural and pattern-oriented, so beginning with the process of collage allows me to better translate those qualities when I create the paintings. I then utilise the different textures to recreate the sense and feeling of a collage on canvas and to establish dynamic compositions that play with formal aspects of painting, such as colour, form and line.”
The materials all can be traced to sources and reflect the coming together of Thomas’ life, work, and process. “Most of the fabrics I use are chosen with the intention of reconstructing my childhood – like memories of grandmother reupholstering furniture,” she reveals. “I also started playing around with rhinestones when I became interested in notions of Pointillism during my undergrad years. They provide a perfect combination of content, process and material, and as a ‘decorative’ material they serve to dispute the standard conception of what a painting is and what it can be.”
SHE BELIEVES IN THE IMPORTANCE OF MULTIPLE GAZES
The subject of the gaze in art is nuanced and rich, ripe with layers to be peeled away until we reach the core of humanity. Where some artists wholly embrace or resist the idea of a “female gaze,” Thomas takes on the inherent complexity, conflicts, and contradictions of a complementary approach.
Thomas explains, “The female gaze implies the creation of something that is, and can only be, constructed when both the subject and artist are women. It’s more likely I identify with my models than someone who asserts a ‘male gaze,’ and that’s a very important part of my work.”
The artist recognises the underlying reasons for occupying this space, explaining, ”My gaze presents itself in a way that I am very conscious of; sexuality and attraction play a role in my work and that’s something I can’t separate from myself or my perspective. My desire for women is no different in some ways than male desire. Women are sexy, beautiful, and look damn good in heels.”
By bringing together that which seems to be in opposition, Thomas rejects the simplicity of paradox in favour of creating a new dialogue in its place. She observes, “Acknowledging that any one individual can bear both the ‘female gaze’ and ‘male gaze,’ allows you to be critical of what both those essentialist terms actually mean. Is it really just a matter of one woman looking at another to create work? Or is it a complex perspective that requires a more inclusive consideration of history and identity. Ultimately, I think my perspective presents an open dialogue with each of my subjects; it allows my images to be encoded with the spirit of womanhood in all of its nuanced forms.”
Thomas fundamentally understands that “The ‘female gaze’ is also misleading in that it intimates an identical experience between all women. I believe that you can’t have a ‘female gaze’ without understanding a ‘male gaze,’ because deconstructing the ‘male gaze’ involves understanding it and reinterpreting it, in order to work against it. To say that it’s one or the other is to say that we aren’t humanly connected.”
AND THE POWER OF REPRESENTATION
Thomas’ work brings to bear the power of representation to change not only the way we see ourselves but our understanding of the world in which we live. The traditions of western art have largely excluded those who were neither white nor male, but in recent decades, a shift has occurred, creating an inclusive space for people from all walks of life.
For Thomas, this space is the provenance of black women from all walks of life, fully revelling in their beauty and allure. She notes, “By portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty and background, I’m working to diversify the representations of black women in art.”
When Thomas began taking photographs in the early 2000s, the mainstream media was working with reductive stereotypes of young black women in the form of Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown, who limited themselves to appearing as objects of desire.
“It appeared to me that as a black woman, I was subject to the same kind of limitations and framework in which they performed. And I found this presentation of black women to be deeply in conflict with my understanding of myself and most black women I knew,” Thomas explains.
“I wanted to contemplate and challenge these stereotypes through my work. It was crucial for me to flip these ideas by making images of women who were not, for example, a ‘Foxy Brown’; but also wasn’t in line with the marginalising narrative of female subjects in western art history. This wasn’t meant as a political statement, but I was conscious of the fact that the diversity of black women was not represented in pop culture or art.”
By casting friends and family members in her work, Thomas has taken control of the narrative. By creating empowering images filled with agency, awareness, and self-love, Thomas’ work evokes profound feelings of joy and communion with her subjects.
“Just like my first muse, my mother, all of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality,” she notes. “They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty in a way that exudes boldness and vulnerability at the same time. Most importantly, they are real, and one of the things I look for in a subject is a unique and sometimes unexpected interpretation of what it means to be a woman.”
You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences is on view at the North Caroline Museum of Art, Raleigh, through July 22, 2018.
Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through May 13, 2018