#WCW Mickalene Thomas – An Exclusive By Myla Dalbesio
Why we love her:
Sparkling enamel shines in front of you, women draped in elaborately patterned dresses stare, meeting your eyes with their own. They recline on couches, sit together on the floor, limbs splayed and eyes watching. They never break their gaze, challenging you to do the same. To recognize them, perhaps to recognize yourself.
Examining identity, sexuality, race and gender, artist Mickalene Thomas’s work is visceral, celebratory, nostalgic. She jumps from one medium to another, seamlessly gliding from photographs to collages to videos to paintings, constructing elaborate installations and collaborating with an array of women. Celebrities like Michelle Obama, Solange, and Naomi Campbell have all appeared in her portfolio, alongside friends and family members, creating an overall portrait of feminine strength and black beauty. “I look for myself in these women,” says Mickalene, and the autobiographical nature shines through. We see a commonality between them all, and while it may not always be our history that we are watching sparkle in front of our eyes, it is something we can connect with regardless of race or gender. It is emotional, beautiful, confrontational, vibrating with color and life. It asks the viewer to examine their own lineage, their own concepts of identity and how we relate to the world around us. Do we honor ourselves and our history? Does it deserve to be honored?
Mickalene’s work succeeds in another historical avenue as well, reimagining and reconstructing the art world cannon and infusing it with diverse representations of women. In Leçon d’Amour, Mickalene reworks Balthus’ The Guitar Lesson, The Origin of the Universe 1 reimagines Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: Le Trois Femmes Noires presents an updated version of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The formal compositions and self-empowered sensuality depicted stand almost in opposition to each other, and yet they work cohesively. She lays claim to these historical images, manipulating them to include her own history, and the collective history of a long marginalized group of people. Rather than lamenting that black women were forgotten and excluded throughout the centuries of Western art, she inserts herself directly into the conversation, essentially changing the parameters forever. And subject matter aside, simply existing as a successful gay black female within the painting tradition (a medium historically dominated exclusively by straight white males), is remarkable in itself.
We love Mickalene’s work for the way it makes us feel: excited, entranced, empathetic. The juxtaposition of African prints and bold landscapes fractured across taught classical frameworks create dreamy fantasy lands where women rule, and we’re along for the ride.