New York City, New York
Mickalene Thomas (born January 28, 1971) is a contemporary African-American artist best known for her complex paintings made of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. Her work draws from Western art history, pop art and visual culture to examine ideas around femininity, beauty, race, sexuality, and gender.
Mickalene Thomas was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1971, and raised by her mother Sandra “Mama Bush” Bush, who, at 6’1″ tall, modeled in the 1970s. She exposed Mickalene and her brother to art by enrolling them in after-school programs at the Newark Museum, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Thomas’ mother raised her and her brother Buddhists. As a teenager, Mickalene and her mother had a very intimate and strenuous relationship due to her parents’ addiction to drugs and Thomas dealing with her sexuality, which she documented in the short film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother.
Thomas lived and attended school in Portland, Oregon, from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s, studying pre-law and Theater Arts. Thomas received her BFA from Pratt Institute in 2000 and her MFA from Yale School of Art in 2002. Thomas participated in a residency program at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York from 2000 to 2003 and also a residency in Giverny, France at the Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program.
During her early career she found herself immersed in the growing culture of DIY artists and musicians, leading her to start her own body of work. Mickalene noted that when she became an artist, fashion was always “in the back of my mind” as a source of inspiration. Most influential to her was the work of Carrie Mae Weems, especially her Kitchen Table and Ain’t Jokin series, which were part of a retrospective held at the Portland Art Museum in 1994. In an interview with the Brooklyn Museum, Thomas described this experience with Weems’ work as “familiar” and “transformative”, as it addressed for her questions about self-identity, sexuality, blackness and the dominant culture. Weems’ work not only played a role in Mickalene Thomas’ decision to switch studies and apply to Pratt Institute in New York, but to use her experience and turn it into art.
Her depictions of African-American women explore notions of black female celebrity and identity while romanticizing ideas of femininity and power. Reminiscent of ’70s style blaxploitation, the subjects in Thomas’s paintings and collages radiate sexuality. Women in provocative poses sprawl across the picture plane and are surrounded by decorative patterns inspired by her childhood as in Left Behind 2 Again from 2012, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Her subjects are often well-known women like Eartha Kitt, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice. Her portrait of Michelle Obama was the first individual portrait done of the First Lady and was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery’s Americans Now show.
Thomas’s website notes that she is best known for her elaborate paintings composed of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel and that she presents a “complex vision of what it means to be a woman and expands common definitions of beauty.” The many years that Thomas has spent studying art history, portrait painting, landscape painting, and still life has informed her work. Inspired by the Hudson River School, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Romare Bearden, she “explores notions of beauty from a contemporary perspective influenced by popular culture and pop art.”
Thomas’s subjects are virtually always women of color; a means to portray and empower the women and celebrate their culture and beauty—sometimes by incorporating them into iconic Western paintings. The subjects have assertive and unapologetic poses and gazes, which serves to challenge the dominance of the male gaze in art. Her subjects look directly at the viewer, staring at them as they pose nude or partially naked. This assertive portrayal indicates that the models are at ease in their own skin, thus challenging the stereotype of the silent and inferior woman objectified by the viewer’s gaze. In addition, seemingly insignificant decisions (like not straightening the figures’ hair) have the important effect of encouraging women of color to accept themselves as they are and not conform to a particular ideology of beauty imposed by society.
Thomas’s work is also distinctive in its foregrounding of queer identity and themes: she is a queer woman of color representing women of color in a way that emphasizes their erotic beauty. By emphasizing the women’s striking presence and sensuality along with their assertive gazes, Thomas empowers these subjects, representing them as resilient, stunning women who command the spectator’s attention. The sitters have the control and power of the gaze, and when this exchange is between women, it subverts the traditional dominance of the male gaze in art and visual culture. Thomas’s queer identity is foregrounded, for example, in her artwork Sleep: Deux femmes noires, in which we see two female bodies intertwined in an embrace, on a sofa, thus highlighting for her audience to the femininity, beauty, and sexuality of women lovers.
In addition to her paintings, the Brooklyn-based Thomas works in the mediums of photography, collage, printmaking, video art, sculpture and installation art. Her works, in particular the Odalisque series (2007), have been interpreted as “investigating the artist-model relationship but from an updated perspective of female inter-subjectivity and same-sex desire.” (La Leçon d’amour, 2008) She has restaged themes and symbolism with a long lineage in Western art in her references to the odalisque representation of women in exotic settings. She experimented with institutional images in FBI/Serial Portraits (2008), based on mug shots of African-American women. In 2012, Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe, her first major solo museum exhibition, opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum. This show, the title of which references Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde, showcased a series of recent portraits, landscapes and interiors.
Thomas has collaborated with musician Solange, creating the cover art for her 2013 EP True. The cover began as a portrait of Solange the artist herself commissioned. Thomas and Solange also collaborated on a trailer for the music video for the song “Losing You.”
Her short film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, created for her exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, is about Sandra Bush, her mother and longtime muse. In it, Sandra talks about careers, relationships, beauty, and her fatal illness. The film made its television debut on HBO on February 24, 2014, and has run regularly since.
Photo: The Female Lead0