By Faron Manuel
"I've been trying to get my work here [Atlanta] for many years, and it’s a great honor to have it here at Spelman," said visual artist Mickalene Thomas at the opening of her new solo exhibition Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities ̶ ̶ currently on view at the Spelman Museum of Fine Art at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA through May 20, 2017.
(Collaged Video featuring actress Eartha Kitt and artist Mickalene Thomas, as Eartha Kitt)
The show, featuring various arrangements of HD video, large-scale mirrored silkscreen portraits, and chronographic photo prints ̶ ̶ places vintage images of black women from popular culture in conversation with both historic and contemporary imagery. The artist even weaved in her own likeness as a stand-in for Eartha Kitt.
Medium wise, the solo-exhibition, organized by Aspen Art Museum, is a move into a new direction for the artist. Though not very much unlike the painted images of reclining women she has become known for, content wide ̶ ̶ a digression from her usual media can be seen in the addition of film. As Mickalene is known for creating large vibrantly colored paintings from her own photographs of feminine muses, in carefully arranged, opulent settings. A nod to this staple in her work is implied by the seating in the space.
The opening featured the artist in conversation with Beverly Guy-Sheftall Ph.D., founding Director of the Women's Research & Resource Center at Spelman College. As the two discussed mostly the artist biography, while noting turning points in the various phases of her art making. The artist, sharing how, in the 90s she was exposed to the work of Carrie Mae Weems in Portland, Oregon ̶ ̶ which prompted her to begin creating works of art, as she began to recast photographs of Weems works from that particular show; revealing that she later used those same pastel drawings to gain acceptance into Pratt Institute in New York.
Ironically this process of working from photographs has been a constant in Mickalene’s work, her rational being that "we accept photographs as truth." Later explaing how photographing her mother, whom she had had a trying relationship with in the past, was the point where her work began to change. Soon after the artist shared her first film, Happy Birthday To A Beautiful Woman: A Portrait Of My Mother. A project that not only inspiring her to further interrogate the meaning of womanhood, but also her recent venture into using film as a medium in her art.
(Still from film of Sarah Bush, mother of Mickalene Thomas)
Though partial to Mickalene’s paintings, I find her continuing to interrogate and examine the meaning of womanhood essential for her own life and the lives of others. Also this is the type of inquiry that makes us truly capable of unpacking the images and placement of women in popular media, culture, and in our lives. Speaking from the work itself, Mickalene desires to "create inquiry around black women, placing them in a museum worthy light, disrupting the images in the media…" and to reiterate, this is indeed an important inquiry. Hopefully, viewers of Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities will walk away with honest question about the meaning of womanhood, and more specifically black womanhood in contemporary times. Also, as Spelman Museum of Fine Art’s 20th anniversary has now been marked by Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities, it should be interesting to follow the coming programming and dialogues that will complement this show.