Mickalene Thomas’ loving, lustful look at the black female form


“Camden is not an easy place to break out,” Thomas told me, walking past Mickey with her friends and family. “I took the first opportunity to get out without hesitation.” At 17, she dropped out of high school and followed a friend to Portland, Ore. The friend was five years older than she and Filipina; They met at work in a restaurant where Thomas occupied tables and the friend was the hostess. In Portland they lived with their friend’s parents – “We went to DL,” said Thomas with a laugh – and Thomas finished high school. At first she thought she wanted to do art therapy or maybe interior design, but a fateful view of Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series” in the early 1990s – in which Weems plays various roles of black women in the traditionally gendered form and thus plays family space – get her on her way to art school. She returned to the east coast and enrolled with Pratt for her BFA. There was yet another reason to withdraw: She was willing, she said, “not to be in conversation and when people talked about family I wouldn’t talk about it.” The proximity to her home country meant that she might be part of their relationship could work to her mother.

“She has always been very good at taking humble materials and giving them that kind of nobility.”

Although she was inspired by Weems, Thomas initially stuck to painting and abstraction. It was a course requirement for her MFA at Yale that got her behind the camera where she started photographing Mama Bush. It helped bring them closer together. Thomas also used the camera to examine himself. A series of paintings and photos in which she appears as Quanikah, a hyper-femme alter ego, shows how she tries on herself: the Mary J. Blige guy, with a blonde wig; a girl with a braided bob; a girl with long acrylic nails and flower clips in her hair. It was an experiment with performance in the tradition of Weems and Cindy Sherman, but it was also the start of a long conversation about jewelry, presentation and perception.

In another series of paintings, Thomas used her own body as a model. This started with “Origin of the Universe, Part 1”, a piece that refers to Gustave Courbet’s famous painting “L’Origine du Monde” from 1866, a study of the vulva and lower torso of a model. Unlike the original, Thomas’ character has brown skin, but her goal wasn’t just to swap out one shade for another. She applied rhinestones where pubic hair would be and along the folds and crevices of the vulva and the inner thighs so that the stones gather and glitter on the wrinkled sheets below – almost like stars, but one too Suggest liquid. For all its gloss, it’s an overall more realistic examination of the female anatomy in terms of desire, also because it feels less tidy and its contours are less controlled.

Historically, the use of materials such as rhinestones in the visual arts was considered straightforward. Thomas made it their signature by taking them seriously. “When you think of someone like Caravaggio or Hopper, you think of the light,” she says. “So what is a light source for me? I’m playing with a different kind of light source. ”Their use of craft materials for their shine reminds me of African American quilts like those made by the quilters at Gee’s Bend, Ala. It also reminds me of my mom and aunts, who all love to shine when they go out for the night – a nod to a different kind of championship.

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