On the third floor of the Pedder Building in Hong Kong’s CBD, a series of bright, loud, rhinestone-encrusted paintings shout and leap from the walls of Lehmann Maupin Gallery like a troupe of Folies Bergère girls. They demand attention, seducing, cajoling, and tempting the viewer to come closer. These large, densely-layered, and tactile portraits and abstract paintings—composed of bright glittery wedges of craft paper and collaged photographs slicing across the canvas, thick textured impasto paint, enamel, and rhinestones—are unashamedly decorative. New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas gives viewers just the right amount of glamour and artifice to lure them in.
Thomas offers a complex and celebratory representation of what it means to be a woman, in particular a black woman. Titled the desire of the other (18 November 2016 – 7 January 2017) the exhibition is a tongue in cheek reference to the ‘other’ as black woman, the ‘other’ as woman in a society increasingly at odds with women’s changing and evolving role, and empowerment. The artist creates works that play with representations and perceptions of black femininity, and that dispel and deconstruct myths and notions of beauty, race and sexuality. Imperious, self-possessed, looking straight into the camera lens, at the viewer, Thomas’ muses shatter stereotypes of black women.
A beautiful brown odalisque swathed in printed fabric in Qusuquzah Lounging with Pink + Black Flower (2016), looks straight at the viewer, collaged eye magnified. Our eyes are drawn to her thigh, partly painted, partly collaged, then to her face where we are arrested by her gaze, steady, demanding, unapologetic. As art writer John Berger wrote in his seminal book Ways of Seeing, ‘To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.’ Throughout the canon of art history, the nude is a symbol of sexual objectification where the spectator is assumed to be male, and the image of the woman, her pose, her expression, are designed to flatter him. In Thomas’ paintings, the original viewer, the one who has captured the photograph and the painted likeness, is a female—the artist herself. It is at another woman that the muses look, complicating and challenging traditional notions of viewership, female sexuality and power relations. In many of her paintings, Thomas’ muses appear partially revealed—breasts, thighs, bellies exposed. Yet her muses do demand to be recognised for who they are. Drawn from an intimate circle of friends, lovers, and previously also her mother, her muses are often named in the title. ‘They’re not just anonymous props to my work, but rather, real women who insist on their presence with their directness and gaze’, Thomas explains. Nor are they passive ornaments serving the narrative of the painting. They are the painting. The models ooze sex appeal, but they are independent, brassy and ballsy. They take ownership of their body and their sexuality. It is not the viewer who devours these women. They devour the viewer. Thomas has subverted the male gaze, handing power to her muses. Pussy grabs back.
The paintings are meticulously constructed. Photographed against stylised ’70s backdrops that reference her childhood memories and the Blaxploitation films of the era, her models lounge, sprawl and recline draped and dressed in an explosion of patterned printed textiles—animal prints, florals, African fabrics. Thomas then brings together a panoply of references, collaging and layering them as deftly as her materials, fusing photography with pop and abstract art, borrowing from Matisse, Cézanne, Hockney, as well as African art. Her models pose and are placed in scenarios that replicate or reference renowned Western art, from Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe to Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. By inserting black women into these scenarios, Thomas is also inserting black women into the canon of Western art history, giving them visibility where they were previously overlooked and sidelined. In doing so she celebrates the black female body, adorning it and empowering it.
Tell me about the impact the work of Carrie Mae Weems had on you and your decision to become an artist? What was it about her work that was so transformative and powerful for you?
I was inspired to become an artist after seeing [Carrie Mae Weems] Kitchen Table Series at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon as a student in the early 1990s. It was the first time I saw work by an African-American female artist that reflected myself and called upon a familiarity of family dynamics and sex and gender. It ignited a new awareness and willingness to create in my own voice, it made me aware of how you can use your experiences as a person and make art out of it.
Let’s talk about the models you use in your work. They are not just anonymous subjects. They are often named in your titles and they are women you know. What are the qualities you look for in your models? Is there any collaboration in the way they are presented?
Like my first muse, my mother, all of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality. They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty in such unique ways. They are unafraid to exude boldness and vulnerability at the same time, and most importantly, they are real. A lot of these women are close friends, friends of friends, and lovers of mine. When a model first enters one of my installations, which act as the backdrop for these portraits, she immediately becomes engaged with the space just as an actress would as she enters a theatrical moment or a stage. By styling them, and posing them, I’m engaged in a conversation with them, in a sense. The photo shoots are always collaborative, and I prefer to relinquish some authority to my muse in hopes of allowing for her to own the space. By bringing real, genuine aspects of herself, I want the unique beauty and individuality to manifest. They’re not just anonymous props to my work, but rather, real women who insist on their presence with their directness and gaze.
In terms of influences, you draw on both the western canon of art history and African art. How do you engage in a dialogue with these visual histories in your work?
I draw a lot of inspiration from the history of art, and part of that drive comes from a desire to re-claim these canonised images of beauty and re-interpreting them, inserting the figures of black woman who have been largely missing or marginalised throughout the history of western art. I also want to use this strategy as a way of aligning myself with artists with whom I identify. I am creating the content I want my work to be viewed within; rather than my work being thought of as a commentary or a departure, I actually want to take part in the conversations running down through the history of art, and take some ownership or participation in the work of artists like Matisse, Manet, Romare Bearden, Balthus, Courbet, Warhol, Duchamp and more.
The scenes in your work have a very strong retro feel. What’s the significance of the ’70s in your work?
I’m mostly referencing my childhood, and the environment that I remember to be so inspiring from my childhood. I’m also trying to re-conjure the social spaces where my family used to gather: my grandmother’s house, my aunt’s and uncle’s house, my mother’s house. The ’70s are a part of my work not necessarily only because of nostalgia, but because of a recontextualising process. I’m reinventing those experiences that I have no memory of. I try to incorporate all aspects of myself in my work; what I grew up with and what I’m inspired by.
Being a black woman painting black women your work seems to get framed by identity politics. What are your feelings on that?
The women in my work throw up a pretty formidable barrier to the clichés traditionally laid on women, especially black women in art; they look right back at the viewer with self-knowledge, demanding to be seen while creating the impression of seeing right through the viewer. By selecting women of color, I am quite literally raising their visibility and inserting their presence into the conversation, portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty and background, I’m working to diversify the representations of black women in art.
What do you wish people to feel or think when standing before one of your works?
I’m hoping someone standing in front of my work might get the same feeling I got when I stood in front of the work of Carrie Mae Weems, having a sense of possibility and accessibility. Just as my muses insist on their visibility and identity, I want my viewers to feel present with fierceness and boldness. Through the act of seeing, I want them to feel validated just as much. I want them to claim their rightful space in the world.
Can you tell me about your Hong Kong exhibition?
In Hong Kong I’m presenting two bodies of work, one series is figurative and the other abstract. I have used bright, bold colors, as well as signature materials. Within the works there are symbols and signifiers of femininity that serve as metaphors to artifice. There are also nods to Western historical paintings from the 19th century, relating to artists such as Manet, Courbet and Matisse, who I’ve been working through for some time.