I met the artist, and fellow Yale graduate, Mickalene Thomas at Columbia College Chicago.
Dawoud Bey (above right), the photographer, has brought amazing, informative programs to the college for years, now. I was able to attend a Bearden Symposium a few years back and recently meet Deborah Willis, a MacArthur Fellow (who included my uncle Jack T. Franklin in her book on African American photographers), and heard her and her son Hank.
I have been aware of Mickalene's work, of course. I saw examples of it at Art Chicago and was aware that Rhona Hoffman is her Chicago Gallery. And I had all kinds of ideas about Mickalene's work. It looked trashy, photography-based in a way I would tell my students is a no-no, and all that glitter and mix-mashed array of materials just freaked me out, to use a 70's term that fits her 1970' sensibility!!
Meet Qusuquzah (above). Mickalene Thomas accented this 2008 portrait of her with
hundreds of rhinestones. "I'm always looking for strong, beautiful, and
complex women to model for me," says Thomas. "Qusuquzah embodies the
allure of glamour." Image from Unbeige Magazine.
She blew all my misgivings and criticisms out the window during her lecture. My friend Derrick Blakley called in the middle of writing this post. He and I talked a while and I eventually mentioned the lecture, and how my response to her work had changed! A veteran Chicago reporter, currently at CBS2 Chicago, he asked the reporter's question:
"Does it make the work better ?"
"Well yes", I answered, thinking "great question"!
He continued by asking how the back-story makes a difference. I have added my quick response here. Examples of how the passage of time plus changing points-of-view about art revised how the Impressionists, the Fauvists, Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'AVignon (below right) and other artists and art works were thought of by the majority at first, including critics and art collectors, and over time how the same works became iconic, making for blockbuster exhibitions, and winning top auction prices.
Well, I still think the hairy mass of glitter under the legs and arms of some of her images is off-putting, but that may be the point!
The woman is very successful. That alone is enough to admire her for, 'cause we all know that only a few rise to the top. It's not "talent". Plenty of folks have that. It is based on trends, proximity to people who can help you, luck and clearly, hard work. Mickalene discussed some of the surprising coincidences that occurred during her life relating to her going to Yale at the time she went, meeting master curator and fashion icon Thelma Golden and becoming a resident at the Studio Museum in Harlem after graduation from Yale.
Thomas has a compelling story. She is a lesbian who was estranged from her mother.
Her mother has become her model and muse, the only person, according to Mickalene, who will pose fully nude for her. Thomas has the courage to work her stuff out in public through these canvases that include painting, photography and collage as her primary means of image-making. She has done installation and video.
Mickalene is a dark-skinned, nappy-haired, big thighed girl from New Jersey!
I wanted to cry when I heard her. I am tall, light skinned and kinky-haired, and always wanted the skinny-from-the-knees-to-the-crotch-no-touching-thighs the white girls had, I thought those thin thighs were a signifier of beauty, like straight hair and blue eyes. Light, dark or medium most of us black women have felt inferior in America. Neither Ms. Thomas nor I saw ourselves as beautiful, and no one else said we were either, not that I knew of.
My mom and I were never estranged; she saved that for her three husbands. The other stuff is enough stuff. The other insecurities, many brought on simply because we are black is enough. The pain felt by the sensitive girls like me and Mickalene is enough.
Thomas makes glaring, in your face pictures, co-opting and transforming historically famous images that artists such as Manet (a long line of other well-known artists produced similar images of white models), and Modigliani first made. It's a perfect choice. I hate that she had to react to racism and sexism at all! But I think Mickalene is making the perfect art in response to her life, and making a life that was not perfect, perfect. Hers is a body of work I respect. I meant it when I told her I am proud of her!