Brooklyn artist Mickalene Thomas depicts black female beauty and sexual identity with images of power and femininity in a 1970’s setting. Known for her rhinestone encrusted works, Thomas takes cues from Romare Bearden, Gustave Courbert, Edouard Manet and others with her portraiture, landscapes, still lifes, installations, and female nudes.
I experienced her first solo New York show recently at the Brooklyn Museum. “Mickalene Thomas: Origins of the Universe” was dazzling and huge. As you moved deeper into the exhibit you could hear Nina Simone and Prince among 25 others on a soundtrack. It was such fun to enjoy this show with a group of Black women! Mind you, this all-Black women’s group was serendipitous. We actually met on a ‘field trip’ as part of our digital networking group.
The 90 featured works on display included an entrance mural on the ground floor and the fourth floor’s Contemporary Art Gallery where a film about her mother and installations of furnished domestic interiors were explored.
Mickalene’s Mom: The film about Mickalene’s mother, Sandra Bush, a former fashion model, was very emotional. Thomas’ mother has been her muse for many years— since the artist’s days as a BFA student at Pratt Institute and an MFA student at Yale. Dressed in her Sunday best, glorious make-up with deep plum lipstick, Mama Bush, as she is known, was rail thin (compared to earlier art works that featured her) with perfect posture. Her jaundiced eyes looked directly at you with optimism as she prepared for her last dialysis treatment. Mickalene, who is married to artist Carmen McLeod, engaged her mother in a deeply personal conversation about dying, her past drug use, and rocky relationship with her husband.
Soul on Ice: The museum’s fourth floor gallery, including two venues with a connecting hallway, was decked out with many large and small paintings. A lady wearing a blue veiled hat is seen as a photo on one wall and as a painting on another (in photo after below). One of several staged apartments featured books like Soul on Ice and Roots (below photo), a record player playing a real record, 8-track tape deck playing real music, mixed-matched furnishings, and old-timey wood wall paneling. We loved those apartments. What a fun and original show! The exhibit runs through January 20.
What did the sisters say about Mickalene’s art?
“I thought Mickalene Thomas’ work was amazing. I am a huge fan. Thomas’ work celebrates my seventies childhood. It also reminded me of the beautiful images of Black women I saw growing up, reading Essence magazine and watching my mother and her friends who wore Afros and 70s clothing. The patchwork quilt technique that Thomas used celebrates my grandmother’s quilting and reminded me of my own artwork. I love collage and quilts,” said Ananda Leeke, Digital Sisterhood Network founder, who organized our diverse women’s group.
“Thomas’ work was soul food for my creative spirit. I also enjoyed watching the film about her ill mother. It helped me appreciate her work even more. The installation art was incredible too. I loved seeing the living rooms and hearing Diana Ross on the record player. It brought me back to my childhood,” said Ananda.
What else did the sisters say?
One sister remarked about the show’s “edge and attitude.” Another pointed out Black women’s “luscious sensuality.”
“These women are familiar to me. It’s great to see art where we can see our identity reflected.”
“Look at that sister’s gaze and her skin, so brown and firm.”
“Oh, wait. Is that a gigantic brown-skin “x#&!x#*&c” with rhinestones all around it?” asked another, referring to a glittering dark-skinned female genitalia encrusted in Rhinestones inside a large painting.
One of the women in the group lectured about the use of sparkles, rhinestones and glitter as affirming a poor person’s bold statement about being “rich in spirit.”
There was a genuine consensus among us about soul glitter and quilting too. “That’s our tradition. We will put glitter on everything to dress it up. We take scraps to create beautiful quilts. We invented re-purposing! There is a dignity and beauty in those kinds of efforts. Look at the mix-matching wall paper and floor tiles—that’s part of our culture to make something from nothing…to make us feel beautiful and rich,” said another.
Another person remarked about the historical distance Black women’s imagery had moved “from slavery to this high-level artful, multi-dimensional, powerful and stylized place.”
The playlist to accompany the exhibit includes 27 songs ranging from Nina Simone’s “Go the Hell,” Man Man’s “English Bwudd” to Prince’s “Kiss,” was created by Thomas. Check it out.