Art NotesArts & Culture

Self-Awareness and Sexuality: The Photography of Mickalene Thomas

Drawing influences from both Western art history and pop culture, the portraits of acclaimed African-American artist Mickalene Thomas contemplate beauty, identity and womanhood. A Yale graduate, she is best known for her glittering paintings of bold, glamorous black women that incorporate rhinestones, collage, acrylic paint and enamel. Though she views herself foremost as a painter—with photography, collage and installation work serving as the foundation that guides her paintings—these preliminary components can stand just as strongly on their own. Currently on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête” presents portraits of the Brooklyn-based artist’s muses—herself, her mother, her friends and her lovers.

Often lounging about in the same classic poses popularized by early modernists like Edouard Manet and Henri Matisse—an attempt at regaining agency for women who have been objectified throughout art history—her models challenge traditional portrayals of the female body and desire. The women appear empowered and almost confrontational with their sexuality. Dizzying, upholstery-heavy interiors stylistically gravitate towards imagery of the 1970s, hinting at influences from the civil rights movement to blaxploitation films. 

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“Raquel Leaned Back”

Every painting Thomas creates begins with a photograph, and many of those photographs begin with elaborate sets constructed to become the environments for her models. Mimicking living spaces, these sets are full of clashing patterns—loud fabrics with floral, geometric and animal prints—that appear collage-like from a distance. The exhibition includes an installation of one such tableau: a wood-paneled living room complete with artificial house plants, a white tiger statue, a pair of red heels and a bowl of golden apples. 

In the center of the installation, a vintage television plays a loop of Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a short documentary Thomas created on her first and most significant muse: her mother, Sandra Bush. Filmed near the end of her life, Bush reflects on heavy topics including drug addiction and an abusive marriage. She also mentions a period of estrangement from her daughter—one that finally thawed, then gradually blossomed, when Thomas began asking her mother to model for her in art school. The photograph “Sandra: She’s a Beauty” proves just that; her mother wears a peaceful and knowing expression that is as eye-catching as her red fishnets and metallic accessories. 

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“La leçon d’amour”

The second half of the exhibition is dedicated to what Thomas refers to as “tête-à-tête,” and presents artists whose work she finds inspirational or complementary to her own. Reflecting her ongoing ideas surrounding collaborative work, the pieces are intended to create a conversation with one another. The selected individuals approach complicated themes and questions that are central to her work: race, gender, sexuality, self-awareness and the physical body. Sharing this collection in conjunction with her own, Thomas hopes to further stimulate a new discourse through multiple contemporary perspectives. 

The group of selected U.S. and African photographers includes Derrick Adams, Renée Cox, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Malick Sidibé, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems. Weems is of particular significance to Thomas, who recalls her show at the Portland Art Museum as a turning point when she became fully aware of how personal experiences can be channeled into impactful artwork.

Considering pop culture’s influence on her work, it feels appropriate that she should also influence pop culture. In 2013, she was invited to participate in Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film,” which modeled Marina Abromović’s installation “The Artist Is Present” and had guests line up in a gallery space to perform a song with him. Thomas was also commissioned to create the album artwork for Solange Knowles’ EP True, and designed the set for the music video of its single, “Losing You.”

“Muse” features over 40 works and was organized by Aperture Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to connecting the photo community with its audiences. The exhibition will remain on view through Jan. 7.