Mickalene Thomas on empowering black women through art

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mikalene thomas

Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP Images

Known for creating large-scale paintings and collage portraits depicting bold images of black women in lush settings, contemporary visual artist Mickalene Thomas is having an equally huge impact on the art world. In a space that has historically associated beauty with notions of Whiteness, Thomas has dared to paint Black women and their lives as aspirationally beautiful and abundant..

Thomas’ installations of collages, videos, and photographs have been seen around the world and have been added to collections at art institutions around the world, making it possible for Black women to see reflections of themselves and their desires in places revered audiences. “When they go to a museum, they can see that there is a conversation about beauty that is unconventional,” says Thomas. “So it inspires young women to be proud of who they are.”

Behind the artist’s visionary mission was a very identifiable muse: She first turned to her mother, Sandra Bush, for inspiration. Thomas’ Black Bodies pay homage to the 6-foot-1 model matriarch and Thomas’ childhood in Camden, New Jersey, during the 1970s. “She was my biggest cheerleader, fan and supporter,” says Thomas. “When she walked through a room, people were drawn to her light and beautiful spirit. She always had all kinds of friends from different backgrounds. Caucasian, Asian, Russian. That was her, her world, and the one in which she raised my brother and me.”

Not long after Thomas’s mother passed away in 2012, the artist began work on the first of her groundbreaking solo series at the Brooklyn Museum, “Origin of the universe”, a body of work that explored “black female beauty and sexual identity while constructing images of femininity and power”. Her powerful works have earned her a prominent place in what Smithsonian referred to as a “new wave of contemporary art, a movement that reinvents established images of beauty in the art canon.”

The revered creator recently gave us a peek inside her mind, explaining her innovative approach to art and activism.

mikalene thomas

“Jet Blue #27”

Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

Your art is reshaping the field. Can you share your unique process?

Much of my work begins with the ideation process, because what happens before you even sit down with a blank canvas is part of making the artwork. Investigating and experiencing the emotion around it draws me in and drives me and allows for the aha moments. I go online and create dropbox folders and start downloading images and collecting all these images. Start by acting on those ideas through research. And also reading, because perhaps there is literary support around that. Then I start to think Do I want to use only the stock images or do I want to create my own assets by doing a photo shoot or communicating with people? I also see if maybe there is a documentary related to my topic. And I make a list of things that I’m thinking about, which drives other ideas.

So it’s not necessarily like an idea immediately leads to execution…

I will make a series of collages. Sometimes it is with the same image. I will print photographic images and begin to do this type of work through the collage of [changing] composition, color and texture. And while I’m working on those collages, I’m thinking about how I want to execute it in the painting. And then those collages become their own bodies of work. I tell my students, “You can solve everything on your canvas, or you can solve everything before your canvas,” so when you get to do the work, you do it freely. There is not so much fighting or pressure. For my process, I like that a lot of the fighting comes before I go to the canvas. That’s not to say that even when I paint or make the image on a canvas, things don’t change.

Your images of beautiful black women have enriched the art world. Can you also share some of the other ways you are helping to empower women in the field and impact the business?

I’m one of those who has always built a support system for emerging queer artists by creating different platforms like Pratt Forward, which I co-founded with Jane South, director of the painting department at Pratt Institute. This is a mentoring program that provides practical business strategies for artists’ careers. I also co-founded Deux Femme Noire with my partner Raquel. This platform helps queer artists of color and women artists continue their creative endeavors, whether it’s for an exhibition, a show, a special project they’re doing, or just one-on-one advice on gallery contracts and relationships.

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I think co-founding both will create very smart and strong artists who have a great sense of both the creative and business side of their practice. One of my students called me and said, “You know, giving that class to artists in the market was one of the best things we’ve ever had at Yale. And I’m so glad you were there.” That just goes to show that what we’re doing works, because the art business isn’t taught in schools. It is an integral part of what they are doing. It really makes or breaks the success of most artists if they don’t have that support system or knowledge. It is very important to me to create a foundation for these artists so that they know that they are not alone in their endeavors. And it’s a huge shock for artists of color to know what they’re worth. That’s what I want to be part of my legacy.

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How do you see the place of women in the countryside?

As for women and art, we are doing it. There are more women artists than men artists. And as we move into the positions that women are now filling as art historians, as curators or directors, I think the more we do, the more…institutions like museums will know that we are just as valuable as our male counterparts and worthy of be appreciated. big mega shows like Andy Warhol. We could generate the same population and audience as these male counterparts.

What’s next for you and how will it shape the future of the art world?

One of the things I’m working on right now is black beauty pageants. After spending a long time working with the JET beauties of the week, and the JET calendars, I decided to take it to a different level and really figure out this space of pageantry and how, within our communities, we’ve carved out that space. There was a lot of non-inclusion in major pageants like Miss America. So we had to create that space for ourselves, and there was this community that was built and all these women that went through that trajectory to where they are today. So for me, it’s very exciting to start there.

mikalene thomas

“January 1976”

Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

What is your vision of the future of art?

One of my visions for the future of art is that there will be a union for visual artists, we’re the only creative field that doesn’t have a union, so that we’re all recognized and at the top of the list. pyramid. Without us, there is no art market. Artists need to understand that they are leading and driving the market by how they participate in it. And that the galleries, the collectors, the museums are not the only ones that are dictating what the market is. We have to recognize that our voice and our action and what we’re doing is a bigger part of that as well. And that goes back to being, knowing, understanding what it means to be at the top of the pyramid. Understand its value and its volume.

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I think because the world has changed, we have allowed inequalities to enter the art market, and this change has come in the way artists are paid. I think artists will start to legitimately receive a percentage of the residuals from secondary markets. I think the door has been opened and there is a great opportunity for that to change.


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This story was created as part of Future Rising in association with Lexus. Future Rising is a series published by Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of black culture on American life and to highlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. To go oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the entire portfolio.

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