Mickalene Thomas

black art black culture blog mickalene thomas Apr 13, 2022


Mickalene Thomas (born January 28, 1971) is a contemporary African-American visual artist best known as a painter of complex works using rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel.  


Thomas didnt see in art history the strong black women who raised her—women she admired and who looked like her. She turned to examining and expanding on the representation of women of colour in art, addressing their absence and celebrating their beauty.


Thomas's collage work is inspired from cuttings and clippings from Jet Magazine, popular art histories and movements, including Impressionism, Pop art, Cubism, Dada and the Harlem Renaissance. Also she is strongly influenced by artists such as: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Édouard Manet as well as more contemporary influences such as Romare Bearden and Pam Grier.


She explores ideas of femininity, beauty, race, sexuality, and gender. She is known for her elaborate mixed-media paintings made from collage, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. She represents a "complex vision of what it means to be a woman and expands common definitions of beauty."


Women in provocative poses dominate the picture plane and are surrounded by decorative patterns inspired by her childhood. Mickalene noted that when she became an artist, fashion was always "in the back of my mind" as a source of inspiration. 


Thomas blurs the distinction between object and subject, concrete and abstract, real and imaginary through her complex imagery and use of pattern and colour. 


Her depictions of African-American women explore notions of celebrity and identity while engaging with the representation of black femininity and black power. Her subjects are often well-known women like Michelle Obama, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice. 


Thomas's subjects are virtually always women of colour; sometimes incorporating them into iconic Western paintings. She models her figures on the classical poses and abstract settings as a way to reclaim the paintings of women who have been in art history, represented as objects to be desired or subjugated. Her subjects often look directly at the viewer, challenging the dominance of the male gaze in art.


Rhinestones serve as an added layer of meaning and a metaphor for artifice. Rhinestones accentuate specific elements of each painting, while subtly confronting our assumptions of what is feminine and what defines a woman, specifically black women. 


This assertive portrayal indicates that the models are at ease in their own skin, thus challenging the stereotype of the silent and inferior woman objectified by the viewer's gaze. In addition, seemingly insignificant decisions (like not straightening the figureshair) have the important effect of encouraging women of colour to accept themselves as they are and not conform to a particular ideology of beauty imposed by society.


Thomas's work is also distinctive in its foregrounding of queer identity; she is a queer woman of colour representing women of colour in a way that emphasises their agency and erotic beauty. By emphasising the women's striking presence and sensuality along with their assertive gazes, 

For example, in her painting and print edition entitled Sleep: Deux femmes noires (2012 and 2013), in which we see two female bodies intertwined in an embrace, on a sofa, thus highlighting for her audience the femininity, beauty, and sexuality of women lovers.

Watch Mickalene Thomas discuss her work: 


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