The venerated artist on being woke and reclaiming the male gaze for the black woman

There is an intangible allure to a Mickalene Thomas artwork. The monumental, multi-textural, and often rhinestone-encrusted canvases are visually arresting by the sheer size alone, but the complexity of each image delves far beyond the surface. My introduction to Mickalene came several years ago, when A Little Taste Outside of Love – her reimagining of Éduoard Manet’s famed Olympia – left me transfixed in the Brooklyn Museum. The large-scale canvas depicts a Pam Grier-esque nude lounging on a bedazzled array of animal prints and floral cushions. Like a Nubian queen basking in her own beauty, she is entirely commanding of the viewer’s gaze. With this image, like many of Mickalene’s works, she turns the European standard on its head, depicting the black woman not as maidservant but as muse. Instantly absorbed into the canvas, this singular image left me speechless, and it was this same indefinable response that drew Mickalene to art.“Everybody has a life changing introspective moment in their life, and had I not gone to Portland {for school} and seen Carrie Mae Weems’ photographs, my life would’ve turned out entirely differently,” says Mickalene Thomas, 46. “I needed to go there to see those photographs. The universe put me there to do so,” she relays in her studio on the same patchwork couch oft portrayed in her paintings. Mickalene’s initial foray into art grew as an outlet from her humble Camden, NJ upbringings. Like Weems, she experimented with photography as a medium for self-exploration, embracing the space “to come out as a queer woman, and see the world on [her] terms through [her] eyes.” “Standing in front of those photographs resonated the power of an image that’s so familiar it transforms you. I wanted to give that space to people. Those photographs gave me everything, in this museum and it’s by an African American woman. I said to myself, ‘I wanna do that.’” And she is. Fast-forward over a decade, and with a vast body of work spanning her trademark ornamented paintings, photography, film and sculptural installations; Mickalene is a trailblazing voice in the contemporary art world.
At the center of Mickalene’s work lies the idea of a muse. “I identify with women that really use their voice, make a mark and evolve with the world,” she says. “Women whose lives persevered but had to work really fucking hard and break barriers to claim their space.” These muses span from her 5-year-old biracial daughter to her mother, partner, friends, and the likes of Solange, Diana Ross and Michelle Obama. Every piece starts with a photograph, placing her muse in her world – a glamorous in-studio set straight out of a 70s Blaxploitation film. The photo then manifests in a canvas on which she layers paint, fabric, and rhinestones all collaged into one larger-than-life painting. Her muse du jour is Donyale Luna – the first African-American model to land a Vogue cover in 1966 – whose iconic doe eyes will make it into two of Mickalene’s upcoming pieces. The intricacy of these references and complexity of Mickalene’s inspirations – from Georges Seurat’s Pointillism and Hudson River School to Haitian voodoo flats – are synonymous with her multi-layered artistic vision.

“For me it’s going through the world, finding the women that inspire me that I connect with and bring them back to my working place…I’m giving them their voice back and reincarnating them through my work.”

In the foyer of her studio sits her latest piece, currently on view at New Museum’s Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon exhibition. Entitled “Me as Muse,” the sculptural video installation juxtaposes 12 stacked television screens with rolling footage of saintly European and sexualized African nudes, including the artist herself. Of the many references shown, the subversive piece depicts “Hottentot Venus” – the South African woman brought to London as a “freak-show” exhibition for her exotic curves – and Grace Jones’s feline nude from Jean Paul Goude’s Jungle Fever. Behind the scrolling footage of nudes reels an audio recording of legendary singer Eartha Kitt vulnerably recounting the sexual violence of her past, and how she learned rise above it all. Mickalene rarely engages in self-portraiture, yet here exposes herself with the same vulnerability, yet reclaiming the black odalisque from white male gaze. She chose Eartha specifically because, “she was one of those celebrities who unapologetically used her voice to deliver a message.” Like many other artists of that era, like Nina Simone or Marvin Gaye, she used her stage “to speak out and let her people know there was that inspiration, and a place for them.”

Mickalene uses art as both a tool and a weapon, and was recently named as one of Essence’s #WOKE100 for her longstanding advocacy of inclusivity in the arts. In a politically-charged era where artists are increasingly using their platforms as a space to affect change, Mickalene sees her underlying goal as “using my voice to speak out and reach people. My hope is that my images are breaking the mold.” She admits, “the honor really made me look at myself and ask, ‘am I really woke?’ I was fortunate to embrace at an early age identifying people as humans rather than by the constructs that divide us apart. With everything that’s happened since Charlottesville, people are really in a space of being open.” Mickalene is currently working on her first political piece for an upcoming exhibition, and is eager for the new iteration that will open up in her work. In addition to reawakening the strength and perseverance of her muses, she’s using her voice on a smaller scale, planting the seed at a grassroots level. “I made a personal goal that every elderly person I walk by I’ll look at directly in the eye, smile and ask them how they are. The impact of that simple organic human connection is incredible. We forget that the simplest, easiest gestures can change people’s lives. One man was so taken aback, to see the elation and surprise in his eyes was so powerful. It’s not just “I wanna do, I wanna do.’ But what can I do for others?”

In reflecting on the notion of celebrity, she notes “when you have an opportunity to stand on a platform, and the laymen are looking up at you, one of your jobs is the power of your voice and power of inspiring the power of change really allowing people that hope.” The spotlight can be as seductive as Mickalene’s glittering canvases, but her work – like the lowbrow rhinestones she’s elevated to highbrow medium – bridges worlds and breaks barriers. She asks herself “how does one look at her own life, and find meaning in a world that’s saying, ‘well this is how you should do art’?” While her answer is in constant evolution, in reclaiming a space for black women and black beauty in art, Mickalene’s leaving the white patriarchal system in her wake. Now that’s woke.

No more articles