BAHM: 2.14.17 Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas is a multimedia painter and photographer based in New York. Thomas started photographing herself and her mother while in the MFA program at Yale. Since completing that program in 2002, she has participated in residencies at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2000 to 2003 and at the Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program in Giverny, France in 2011. Her work is heavily inspired by 1970s ‘Black is Beautiful’ aesthetics, studio portraits by James Van Der Zee and Seydou Keita, and the classic European odalisque. Thomas’ work challenges standards of beauty and femininity from the perspective of the Cisgender, white male that has dominated the Western art canon. Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête will be exhibited at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens from October 14, 2017 to January 2018.
Examining Thomas’ photographs, it becomes instantly recognizable how influential 1970s Black cinema and editorials are to the work. What is less obvious is the connection that she makes between that and the works of Malian photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keïta who utilized studio portraiture to capture the changing faces of Malians in their struggle for Independence as well as James Van Der Zee, a prominent photographer of the Harlem Renaissance. Thomas, like her influences before her, recognized the revolutionary consequences implanted in acts of self-love and self-imaging. She also utilizes the language of classic European painting to advance a female, desiring gaze onto her primarily black, female subjects who meet this gaze equally, endowing them with agency and power over the viewer. The carefully crafted interior sets for her portraits also recall the clashing patterns and vivid colors that imbued Keïta's portraits with texture and chaos. The effect of this technique on the eyes is that it draws attention to the smooth, luminous surface of the skin. Thomas incorporates collage into much of her work, and particularly in her photographic images in which a mish mash of color and patterns are juxtaposed against clippings of black and white images, again, drawing attention to the surface of the skin. The surface of the skin, as a focal point of the image, highlights the skin as a marker of difference, of the Other, which ultimately changes the power relation between the viewer and the sitter.
Artist Project Video, Met Museum: Mickalene Thomas on Seydou Keïta