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Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs is a ten-year retrospective of selections of Thomas’s paintings and photographs from 2001 to 2011. The book was the basis for the exhibition Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête presented at the Aperture Foundation Gallery in New York from January 28 to March 17, 2016. The large-format photograph on the book’s cover, Din, une très belle négresse #1 (2012), is a study in mustard, black, white, and gray of a portrait of a woman in front of a graphic floral print background. Her soft, rounded natural hairstyle compliments the circular shape of her shell pendant and the floral motifs on her dress and background. The curve and color of her eyes and lips lend additional harmony to the entire composition. The warmth of the photograph comes from the limited palette of colors and the comfortable way in which the woman stares out directly at the viewer. She appears to be in her element—she looks good and she knows it. She is confident and composed. It seems as if Thomas took her picture just before she stepped out to attend an affair and we hope she has a good time.
The book begins with a series of Thomas’s self-portrait photographs and collages from 2005 to 2010. The first photograph negress with green nails (2005) depicts Thomas on a city street wearing full makeup, a nearly full set of lime green French tip acrylic nails, and a matching ribbed shirt. Her hair is decorated with white plastic barrettes—the kind usually seen on young black schoolgirls. Bright-eyed and smiling, Thomas’s gold jewelry frames her face with a reflective glow. The self-portraits show Thomas exploring different possibilities of her persona. Thomas presents herself as various characters, with titles including phrases like “negress or afro goddess,” through various wigs, eye shadow, jewelry, clothing, and backgrounds. One photograph whose title references the artist through a feminized version of her name, Portrait of Mickalena (2010), shows Thomas looking away from the camera rubbing her fingers together, aware of the missing nail. Though the photograph seems more candid than the others in the series, Thomas still has authorial control. The shape of her body is cut away from the original street environment and repositioned in front of textured shapes—cardboard and sky—that suggest what Mickalena is thinking about. Literally detached from her environment, she is lost in her own thoughts.
The second set of photographs feature Thomas’s mother Sandra Bush, who was a model before Thomas began photographing her and other black women for her art. Her mother appears in a range of domestic settings, pictured both partially nude and fully clothed. She is flirtatious, erotic, funny, and elegant. At first, I was taken aback by the inclusion of what some might find to be titillating photographs of Thomas’s mother along with photographs of the artist’s friends and lovers. In this section of the book, an amoeba-shaped hole cut through an image of wood paneling reveals Sandra in a playful peek-a-boo manner. The low-tech interactive feature adds a coquettish element to the viewing experience. After closer study of this series, I have come to terms with it; through her lens, Thomas was able to validate and celebrate a fuller range of her mother’s subjectivity. As an artist, she provided the means and vision to document the complexity and beauty of her mother. The series strikes me as an act of courage by both artist and subject.
In a moment’s pleasure in black and white (2006/2008) two women sit and look simultaneously relaxed and impatient. The prints of their loose-fitting dresses blend into the prints of the rugs, blankets, sheets, and foliage that surround them. The juxtaposition of their bodies with a fake plastic tree and animal skins highlights the constructedness, almost corniness, of the environment. Even though the photograph is black and white, the contrasts of flowers, fish, stripes, solids, and bric-a-brac keenly announce the artificiality of the image. The garish print of the backdrop fabric recalls the iconic portraits of Harlem Renaissance notables captured by photographer Carl Van Vechten. Many call to mind his signature shallow backgrounds—densely patterned and sometimes iridescent—when thinking of the New Negro celebrity set. Seeing that quintessential formula in Thomas’s work offers one layer of reference for her beauties: a modern twentieth-century glamour filtered through the intimate relationship between photographer and subject.
A moment’s pleasure #2 (2007) is a reworking of a moment’s pleasure in black and white. Select objects in the women’s surroundings are presented in colorful collage. Like Portrait of Mickalena, the abstract additions give the composition a surreal and otherworldly quality. The women appear less grounded in a room and more as if they are floating in fleeting layers and textures. Baby I am ready now (2007) is a full color photograph of one of her models in the same room as a moment’s pleasure. Thomas amplifies the diversity of prints, making the face and skin of the woman a visual respite for the viewer. The attraction to the woman as a contrast to the busy background forces a conversation between the viewer and the woman who is staring back.
Some of the artworks’ titles include the names of the models, among them painter and assemblage artist Shinique Smith, performance artist Kalup Linzy, and singer Solange. Other titles such as portrait of a lovely six foota (2007) and hot! wild! unrestricted! (2009) read as objectifying—falling out of the realm of admiration and into commodification. Certainly, there are many signs of consumer culture in many of Thomas’s compositions, from the yards of retro-print fabrics that cover almost every surface to the photographs of 1980s R & B songstresses and the album covers that depict sexy pop divas Thelma Houston, Diana Ross, and Donna Summer. These pictured products are made to be sold and to fit in the crook of one’s arm. An era of disco and black sexuality is for sale. Thomas shows that libidinal economy with seriousness, nostalgia, and lust.
Thomas uses both French and English to title her photographs. Although French is a language spoken by people all over the world, the colonial history that is responsible for its dispersal is brought to bear in examining the photographs in Muse. The legacy of French nineteenth-century visual representations, namely in painting and photography, has defined representations of black women through a narrative of racial science, disease, hypersexuality, and excess. Thomas’s titles seem to reclaim and share the colonial gaze. Her photographs cannot escape or replace the power of the representations of black women by artists such as Manet, but this does not seem to be the goal of Thomas’s project. Instead, she offers contemporary alternatives within the discourse of representing the black female body, producing new expressions of desire.
The literary content of the book appears after the portfolio of images in a section titled “tête-à-tête.” It begins with a statement by Thomas explaining that the inspiration for the book resulted from a 2012 conversation with artists Derrick Adams, Clifford Owens, and Xaviera Simmons. She envisioned a group exhibition of artists whose work influenced her thinking about issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Her hope was to contribute to the contemporary discourse of the black body. Along with these artists, she shares concerns about “probing notions of self-awareness that complicate both contemporary and canonical Western stereotypes of blackness” (82). Included in Muse are nineteen works by artists other than Thomas: Derrick Adams, Renée Cox, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Wangechi Mutu, Malick Sidebé, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems. Nearly all of the photographs are self-portraits. This section is followed by “Carrie Mae Weems in Conversation with Mickalene Thomas,” a discussion that offers further insight into Thomas’s early career and the recurring themes of sexuality, beauty, and the gaze in her work. After a second portfolio of Thomas’s art is the essay “Mother-Muse-Mirror: Mickalene Thomas’s Photographs” by Jennifer Blessing, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s senior curator of photography. Blessing discusses Thomas’s life as a student, analyzes some of her artworks, and ends by offering thoughts on Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman (2013), the HBO film Thomas made about her mother as the muse of her art.
Muse is a book about sensual pleasure. It is an exploration of desire, self-representation, and fantasy. The intricacy of Thomas’s compositions make Muse more than a flip-through-and-display coffee table book. There is substance in the glitz that makes Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs something readers will return to.
Bridget R. Cooks
Associate Professor, Department of African American Studies and Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine