Sunday, December 30, 2018

Femmes Noires - Mickalene Thomas at the AGO

Hello!  Hope you had a nice "whatever you do or don't celebrate".  I am in the camp of the non-celebrators so I look forward to having time off work over the holidays so I can do a day trip or two and lie around on my couch with my cat, a book and Netflix.   After a few days of my own company I went to Toronto to the Art Gallery of Ontario with the intention to see the exhibit Anthropocene.  I arrived earlier than my designated ticket time, so I went upstairs to see the Mickalene Thomas exhibit, Femmes Noires.  I was not familiar with her, or her work, but the photos on the AGO website looked interesting, and as it turns out, I enjoyed her exhibit much more than the one I came to see.

*Warning - for those who are offended by the sight of women's naked breasts, you might want to stop now*

Le dejeuner sur l'herbe: Les trois femmes noires, 2010  - Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas is a contemporary African-American artist based in New York, who is known for her elaborate paintings that incorporate rhinestones, acrylic and enamel.   The exhibit at the AGO is her first large scale solo exhibit to be held in Canada.  The wall-sized painting in the above photo, which greets visitors to the exhibit, is Thomas' re-imagining of French artist Edouard Manet's painting Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863).  

From the exhibit:

"Mickalene Thomas puts Black women at the centre of her practice.  Her work celebrates the complexity and diversity of Black female identities as she tackles issues of equality and representation, filtered through a queer feminist lens....Thomas deliberately challenges the Western art-historical canon and creates new possibilities for seeing a range of Black bodies."

 Portrait of Maya #2, 2010 by Mickalene Thomas

The women in Thomas' work are beautiful, lush, and exude confidence and self-assurance.  Some, like the subject in the painting above, call to mind characters in the blaxploitation films of the 1970's.   The pieces in the exhibit incorporate painting, collage and photography and are incredibly decorative, visually accosting the viewer with colour, pattern and sparkling rhinestones.

 Living Room Tableaux - Do I Look Like a Lady (Comedians and Singers), 2016

The exhibit has three living room spaces Thomas refers to as "Tableaux" that contains colourful furniture and floor coverings where the viewer can sit and experience the art, read a book (each room contains a selection of books by black authors), or engage with other viewers.   Each room features a large scale video installation; "Do I Look Like a Lady" (above) features a split screen with comedians such as Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg and Moms Mabley on one side, and singers (including Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Whitney Houston) on the other.   Another room is dedicated to images from the film The Color Purple which was adapted from the book of the same name by Alice Walker.  According to Thomas, "the book ignited a strength and spirit in me that have stayed until this day".

Diana Ross, 2016 by Mickalene Thomas.  Silkscreen ink and acrylic on acrylic mirror

While Thomas was growing up she admired Black women who defied racism and oppression to become cultural icons.  She and many other Black women were inspired by performers such as Josephine Baker, Nina Simone and Diana Ross, and Thomas has created powerful images of the iconic women who challenged the cultural norms of art history.  The mirror-based works (see above and in previous photo) begin with a polaroid from her collection which she then bleaches, scans and then photographs as it appears on her computer screen.  This is followed by further post-processing and the final image is then silk-screened onto a mirror.
Portrait of Kalena, 2017

The collaged work above directly references the cubist style of Picasso, who was partly inspired by highly stylized African masks which featured non-natural, but identifiable human faces.  By Thomas incorporating these geometric and mask-like shapes into her own work, she is owning the influence that her ancestors had on Western art. 

Me as Muse, 2016   Mickalene Thomas

In the video installation above, the artist's own nude body stretches across the multiple video screens, challenging our historical notions of beauty.  Other images that appear on the screens include those of 1970's textiles and famous works of Western Art that prominently feature female nudes.

Courbet #4, Courbet #5 and Courbet #2, all from 2011

The series of polaroid images above have many art-world references, included the titles, which refer to French painter Gustave Courbet.

Shinique: Now I Know, 2015, by Mickalene Thomas

Shinique, the woman in the collage/painting above, reclines on a colourful mix of fabrics.  She looks directly at the viewer with a confident stare that dares you to not find her strong but also vulnerable. 

Los Angelitos Negros, 2016

"Los Angelitos Negros" (little black angels) is centred on Eartha Kitt's performance of the song of the same name. One video screen features Kitt singing, while the other three feature Thomas and two other performers, styled like Kitt, lip-syncing the lyrics along with her.
Qusuquzah, Une Tres Belle Negresse #3, 2012

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires runs until March 24th at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto

As this is my last blog post of 2018, I want to thank all of you who still visit, even though the frequency of posts has dropped considerably.  Your loyalty is much appreciated, and Sylvester and I wish all of you Peace, good health, and joy in 2019.


  1. It would be wonderful to wander through this engaging exhibition with so few people in the space! Her work definitely invites closer inspection and thought. Rhinestones, glitter, strong women? Right on. Her work is powerful. Thanks for sharing this here.

  2. Happy New Year to both you and Sylvester, Shelley!!
    Like you, I'm firmly in the non-believer camp, Xmas is just a nice bank Holiday for me and I'd have been all over that exhibition if it had been this side of the pond. I thought Blaxploitation movies immediately when I saw those first few images and the furniture looks like it's come out of my house! xxx

  3. Happy New Year Shelley and Sylvester!

    I adored the Anthropocene exhibit, even though it was depressing and a big wake up call. I think it is so important to know what is happening with the world and the environment. I've never seen anything that showed climate change so clearly and how mankind has irrevocably changed the earth as the photos and videos in that exhibit.

    This exhibit looks interesting.


    1. Anthropocene was definitely an important exhibit, but unfortunately, on the day I was there, it was too crowded to really get a good look at the photos, especially the wall-sized ones, which were obscured by people holding the ipads in front of them.

  4. That looks really amazing - thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    Aw, I love that pic of you and Sylvester. His face reminds me of Vizzini's - very expressive! Happy New Year to you, Shelley!

  5. Thank you for sharing this wonderful exhibit with us!

  6. Thank you sharing the pictures and the informative commentary. I have always enjoyed your posts.

  7. Thanks again for sharing an interesting exhibition here.
    I have to say that whenever I start reading something along the lines of "Warning - for those who are offended by the sight of women's naked breasts, you might want to..." I always complete the sentence in my mind with "...ask yourself why that is" 😘😘😘 @jessiejessyg

  8. This exhibition looks really interesting, I like the powerful images of these black ladies as icons and strong women!
    And I love that picture of you with Silvester! great photo!