Can I appreciate what it’s like to live as a Black woman?
No. I can never asume to know what its like to live in anyone else’s shoes. Despite differences around gender, sexuality, class, economics and color, I do know that without artists like Mickalene Thomas, we will never have the discussions that help us understand, appreciate and relate to one another.
Today’s #FunFriday article features an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) entitled Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires. It a provocative look at themes from this week centered around overcoming challenges and love of self. From our article on Empress Elisabeth and Yara Zgheib’s novel about girls suffering from anorexia and eating disorders, Mickalene’s exhibit offers a chance to look further into the beautiful complexities around the art of being.
Photo credit: TheFemaleLead.com
Make no mistake though – Mickalene exhibit is a targeted approach on the “familiar representations and monolithic notions of Black women today.”
It’s an interesting one, given that this is only the second Black woman to be featured in a solo art exhibit at the AGO.
While I love Mickalene’s honesty about the intended audience for her exhibit – other Black women – I admit I find it rather strange and closed for an artist. Thinking artists want to entice wider audience conversation, it seems odd but obviously, anyone can go and see the exhibit at the AGO.
I also wondered if I should feel angry about not being included in the audience – you know, I’m a woman and I’ve always felt there was strength in unity.
However, I put my ego in check knowing the traditional art world has been disproportionately White-centric in its perspectives and audience so maybe this isn’t so bad. But I must admit what does bother me is the contradiction in Mickalene’s art or more specifically, her self-described view on color. But we’ll get to that in a few moments.
Mickalene’s ability to fearlessly reframe sexuality, identity, celebrity, and African-American women is very impressive. Her work is award-winning and shines a light on the power and sexuality of Black women. To do this, she layers, fractures, and presents color-diversity. A range of mediums from photography and painting to videography combine her view of self with the many faces of other Black women who have been absent or stereotypically portrayed in traditional art.
Furthermore, Mickalene’s perceptions are probing and well-considered. Like all of us, they stem from her past and ideas about the world she sees. Raised as a Buddhist by a mother from the deep south and father from Jamacia, Mickalene’s relationship with her parents was loving but strained. This may be in part from their drug addiction problems and Mickalene’s own struggles with her sexuality.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, Mickalene studied law and art before graduating from Yale with a Masters in Fine Art in 2002. Money was tight and Mickalene couldn’t afford to buy paints so she used less expensive materials like glitter, craft-gemstones, felt fabric and pocket mirrors for her work.
The result was a sort of kaleidoscope of different images conveying a multifaceted view of ‘women of color’.
White European images were replaced with manipulated, brightly-colored pictures, each with unpredictable, broken or jagged borders and adorned with unexpected or bejeweled materials.
The overall effect provides a very visceral reaction to her creations. I love that her lines avoid a clear definition simply because, as she says, we aren’t one color or the other. We are a confluence of many cultural, social and racial influences that offer a much broader range of permutations. The art of being who we are is complicated and impossible to duplicate. It’s what makes each of us so unique.
(The Luncheon – Photo credit: AGO.com)
This is where I question Mickalene’s sole invitation to Black women.
If my skin is White but I’ve been raised by parents with a Black history in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, where do I fit in with her color spectrum? Dare I ask what happens if we continue to follow these racial divides that Mickalene and so many of us abhor? When will we create harmony and simply celebrate all myriads of culture, race, and color?
The most redemptive part of Mickalene’s work is her elaborate exhibit sets. They are a mix of cultural artifacts – chairs, rugs, and other environmental furnishings – that invite people to relax in her space. Mickalene has deliberately staged this with living and non-living things like real plants and artificial greenery. Our layered lives exist freely in this space.
So while I don’t take issue with Mickalene’s freedom to reframe art I do think there’s a level of exploitation that prevents her from realizing not only a bigger audience but a more impactful commentary on what she presents. For example, Mickalene recreated Eduard Manet’s, The Luncheon on the Grass. By replacing three white figures with Black women wearing sparkling afros and modern, bold prints, she rewrites the past. (See the photo above)
For me, Mickalene’s paintings that feature ordinary and celebrity women are far more captivating. They embody the complexities of Black women – Mickalene’s friends, past lovers, family members, and everyday women who deserve our attention. Of course, the portraits of Michelle O (Obama is replaced with ‘O’ in a nod to the famous Jackie O), Oprah, and Naomi Campbell are super cool too.
Mickalene names all of her work after famous people so they are more likely to appear in google searches. This draws greater attention to her work while also serving Mickalene’s desire to have us reconsider traditional images in a new light.
As we struggle with race relations, Thomas’s vibrant art nudges our conscience about how Black women are represented in art and popular culture. I hope Femmes Noires creates a context for deeper discussions about race and social structures, will also help us to explore her perspective on the history, politics, and culture of color, class, gender, and sexuality.
In a perfect world, Mackalene would invite me into her home to talk about building bridges and our shared admiration for the beauty in our world. Kudos to Canada for inviting this contemporary artist and partnering with another American Arts Center in New Orleans to learn from each other like two good friends conversing over race relations and impediments to freedom.
To learn more about Mickalene’s artistry: