Mickalene Thomas on the empowerment of women of color through art

Taylor Jewell / Invision / AP Images

Known for creating large-scale paintings and collage portraits depicting bold images of black women in lush surroundings, 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 dared to paint black women and their lives as ambitious, beautiful and abundant.

Thomas’s collage, video and photography installations have been seen globally and added to collections of art institutions around the world, allowing black women to see reflections of themselves and their desires in revered public settings. “When they go to a museum they can see that there is a conversation about beauty that exists that is unconventional,” says Thomas. “So it inspires young women to feel proud of who they are.”

Behind the artist’s visionary mission was a very recognizable muse: she turned for the first time to her mother, Sandra Bush, for inspiration. Thomas’s black bodies pay homage to the six-foot-tall matriarch and Thomas’s childhood in Camden, New Jersey in the 1970s. “She was my biggest cheerleader, fan and collaborator,” says Thomas. “When she walked into a room, people were drawn to her light and beautiful spirit of hers. She has always had all kinds of friends from different backgrounds. Caucasian, Asian, Russian. That was her world of hers, and the one she brought me and my brother into. ”

Not long after Thomas’ mother died in 2012, the artist began work on the first of his groundbreaking solo series at the Brooklyn Museum, “Origin of the Universe,” a body of work that explored “beauty and sexual identity of black women while constructing images of femininity and power. ”The powerful works have earned her a prominent place in what the Smithsonian has called a” new wave of contemporary art, a movement that reinvents established images of beauty. in the canon of art “.

Recently, the revered creator took a look into her mind, explaining her innovative approach to art and activism.

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“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 the blank canvas is part of completing the artwork. Doing the research and experiencing the excitement that surrounds it attracts me, guides me and allows me to have aha moments. I go online and create Dropbox folders and start downloading images and collecting all these images. Start by taking action on those ideas through research. And also reading, because perhaps there is literary support around this. Then I start to think, Do I want to use stock images only or do I want to create my own assets by doing a photo shoot or contacting people? I also see if maybe there is a documentary related to my subject. And I make a list of things I’m thinking about, which stimulates other ideas.

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A wall of inspiration and images from the Mickalene Thomas series Mama Bush: (Your love keeps lifting me) higher and higher.

Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

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

I will make a series of collages. Sometimes it is with the same picture. I will print the photographic images and start making this type of work through the collage of [changing] the composition, color and texture. And as I work on those collages, I think about how I want to perform them in the painting. And then those collages become their bodies of work. I tell my students: “You can process everything on your canvas, or you can process everything before your canvas”, so when you get to do the work, you do it freely. There isn’t that much struggle or forcing. For my trial, I like that much of the struggle comes before it goes to the canvas. This is 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 empower women in the field and impact the business?

I’m someone who has always created a support system for emerging queer artists by creating platforms as diverse as Pratt Forward, which I co-founded with Jane South, the dean of the Pratt Institute’s painting department. 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 artists of color and queer women pursue their creative endeavors, whether it’s an exhibition, an exhibition, a special project they are carrying out or simply special advice on contracts and relationships with galleries. .

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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 commercial side of their practice. One of my students called me and said, “You know, taking that artist class at the market was one of the best things we had at Yale. And I’m so glad you were there. “This just proves that what we’re doing works, because the craft of art isn’t taught in schools. It’s integral to what they’re doing. It really makes or breaks the success of most. of artists if they don’t have that support system or knowledge. It’s really important to me to create a foundation for these artists so they know they’re not alone in their endeavors. And it’s a huge impact for artists of color to know their worth. This is what I want to be part of my legacy.

How do you see the place of women on the pitch?

As for women and art, we are doing it. There are more female artists than male artists. And as we step into the positions that women are holding now as art historians, as curators as directors, I think the more we do it, the more … institutions like museums will know we’re just as valuable as our male counterparts and mega-worthy counterparts. shows like Andy Warhol. We could generate the same population and audience as these male counterparts.

What are the prospects 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 lot of time working with the JET beauties of the week, and the JET calendars, I decided to take it to a different level and really understand this space of glitz and how, within our communities, we have carved out that space. There was a lot of non-inclusion in traditional contests like Miss America. So we had to create that space for ourselves, and there was this community that was built and all these women who went through that trajectory of where they are today. And so it’s very exciting for me to start there.

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“January 1976”

Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas

What is your vision for the future of art?

One of my visions for the future of art is that there will be a union of visual artists – we are the only creative field that does not have a union – so that we are all recognized and are at the top of the pyramid rankings. Without us there is no art market. Artists need to understand that they are leading and guiding the market based on how they participate in it. And that galleries, collectors, museums are not the only ones to dictate what the market is. We must recognize that our voice, our action and what we are doing is also a larger part of this. And this goes back to being, knowing, understanding what it means to be at the top of the pyramid. Understanding their value and volume.

I think that as the world has changed we have allowed inequalities to enter the art market and this change has occurred in how artists are paid. I believe artists will rightly start getting a percentage of residuals from secondary markets. I think the door has been opened and there is a great opportunity for change.


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This story was created as part of Future Rising in collaboration with Lexus. Future Rising is a series that runs through Hearst magazines to celebrate the profound impact of black culture on American life and highlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.