Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 26, 2018
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities Atlanta: Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 2017.
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, February 9–May 20, 2017
Installation view, Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, February 9–May 20, 2017 (photograph © 2017, provided by Spelman College Museum of Fine Art)

For her new body of work, almost entirely composed of, or engaging with, durational media, such as video and film, Mickalene Thomas has re-created the same intimate, female domestic spaces of communion and solidarity as she sets up in her studio for her photo shoots. Islands of patterned carpet with ottomans covered by the familiar 1970s textiles invite the viewer to sit and interact with versions of her personal library, comprising books by Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Alice Walker, and James Baldwin, among others. Conceived as an immersive and interactive environment—Thomas imagined, for example, that people could take home some of the books, but also perhaps add their own to the stacks—they highlight how important critical work is done in these spaces (see her interview with Heidi Zuckerman, director of the Aspen Art Museum). They also create a specific spatial and aural arrangement. Similar to the images Thomas has previously created in her work, the conceit through which these conversations unfold is that of the tête-à-tête, which indicates both a private, face-to-face conversation between two people and an S-shaped sofa for two that allows the occupants to face one another.

The audio for the three main, mostly multichannel, large video works that occupied the dimly lit space at the Spelman College Museum of Art was synched with effects of layering, refrain, and reverberations that immersed the viewer in a series of intimate conversations of call and response—internal to each work and among the works—between a group of what Thomas has described as “shape-shifting” women: women who fully inhabit their skin while always also striving to exceed what it might dictate they should be and do. These are her muses, mentors, and celebrities, roles that in turn she understands as provisional and changing. Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers), a two-channel HD video projection, was installed front and center, upon entering the space; Me as Muse, a multimedia video installation composed of twelve adjacent screens in which Thomas appears as an odalisque, was to its left; and Angelitos Negros, four two-channel HD videos, featuring Eartha Kitt singing the titular song, was to the right. The editing of the individual pieces creates a complex orchestration of voices that gives a sense of the individual and collective strength and genius of black women. It seems appropriate that, in order to emphasize their shape-shifting quality, Thomas would turn to durational media. Not only so that she can sample and archive these women as they have shifted in and out of popularity, but also so that she can linger on the inflection of their voices, their movements as they pace a theatrical stage, or the way they swing and waver as they sing or dance, in order to show how they remain always fundamentally in tune and in synch with themselves.

The conceit of the tête-à-tête also assumes that Thomas’s interlocutors look to each other and perform to some extent as each other’s mirror, which, in turn, further strengthens the effects of dialogue, accumulation, and community Thomas sought to create in the show. However, this is not the simplistic mirror that places the burden of authenticity or faithfulness on representation, but more provocatively one that focuses on effects of recognition and acknowledgment. In this sense, conversations are mirrors too, just as mirrors are also conversations. After all, throughout Thomas’s work, the self has always been the product of deliberately collaged personal, collective, and art-historical images.

In Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers), comedians such as Moms Mabley, Adele Givens, Wanda Sykes, and Whoopi Goldberg on one side and singers such as Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Millie Jackson, and Whitney Houston on the other appear in video “cells” of various sizes (and at times occupy more than one) and deliver snippets of monologue, songs, and performances, as if engaged in a private conversation among themselves about their femininity, sexuality, and desire with both prowess and vulnerability. The video ends with Eartha Kitt asking, “Why aren’t there any black angels?”

Angelitos Negros, featuring footage of Eartha Kitt performing the titular song alongside three other videos of Thomas and two other women performing as Kitt, amplifies this question through dynamics of identification and projection whereby, Kitt as a celebrity is selected to channel a collective grievance. Wearing black turtlenecks and similar wigs, the women question and indict art-historical exclusionary practices and demand instead an art capable of love. Here again echo effects are magnified by partial repetitions blurring the line between the professional performer and the amateur who might become empowered by her act of impersonation. At times the two screen images come together to compose a complete close-up of Kitt’s face, while at other times the image breaks into smaller views of closer details: her eye, her lips, and so on, seemingly in dialogue with the list of inalienable possessions (in the face of blatant dispossession) Nina Simone sings about in a clip from Ain’t Got No/I Got Life featured in Do I Look Like a Lady?: “Got my hair, got my head/Got my brains, got my ears/ Got my eyes, got my nose.” In the exhibition, a series of scratched and worked-over Polaroids (Polaroid Series #10, Polaroid chromogenic prints, 2016) featuring some of the same performers, in the same attire, hung between these two installations and reinforced similar dynamics of projection and identification, as well as recognition and appreciation.

Although at first reticent to do so because she felt insecure about her ability to manage the default narcissism of a widespread selfie culture, Thomas locates herself in her work, which she had not done for quite some time. Not only did she realize that she had to sustain the pressure imposed on her sitters but also that the label “muse, mentor, and celebrity” applies to her as well. In Me as Muse, she lays nude across the length of the twelve screens, mute but commanding, fragmented but not fetishized, vulnerable but not powerless. At times parts of her body disappear behind squares of 1970s textiles that occupy the individual video cells with a distinct analog aesthetics, while at other times morphing technology seems to “implant” Thomas’s body parts onto the canonical art-historical images referenced by her pose. An image of Saartjie Baartman appears in the center of the video wall and morphs in a manner that further accentuates her fetishized features, while Eartha Kitt in voice-over describes being abused as a worker by a white family and being in relationships with men invested in putting her down. While the grid emphasizes the idea of parts arranged “in formation” and becoming a whole, the use of morphing technology more directly addresses the potential shape-shifting effect that women like Kitt or Thomas can have on and within the art­­-historical canon.

The running thread of mirroring effects obtained by transposing the principle of collage to the medium of video also animates work that is effectively still, as in the silkscreen magnified frame grabs from Spielberg’s The Color Purple; or when the camera lens itself is supposed to function like a mirror, as in the Screen Tests (2016, digital transfer of painted Super 8 film), which nod at Warhol’s but present pointedly different characteristics such as a textured background and an emphasis on the models’ conscious expressivity. Rather than being subjected to the abusive indifference of Warhol’s camera, to various degrees they engage it instead as a private mirror, an interlocutor, and a tool for self-discovery, however partial. Similarly, even though they are effectively powerful frozen moments of enlightenment or self-love from The Color Purple, the silkscreens nevertheless render temporal duration through effects of repetition or glitch. In Sister: Shug Avery Breakfast (2016), Celie, played by Whoopi Goldberg looks on, with both amusement and resilience, at Mister sweating over a hot stove in the attempt to make breakfast for his lover; while her pose is still, the bottom of the image is rendered as a form of video noise. Shug Kisses Celie (2016) repeats Goldberg’s close-up at the moment Shug approaches her face to kiss her, as if she had just seen herself, in the reflection of Shug’s eyes, as a beautiful woman for the first time.

Overall Thomas’s commitment to the durational and mirroring dimensions of the tête-à-tête determined the cyclical nature of the exhibition. Tête-à-tête also names a section that Thomas curated with works from the permanent collection of Spelman College, including Lauren Kelly’s Big Gurl (2006), a witty stop-motion animation featuring creatively modified black Barbie girl dolls caught in brutally real-life situations; and Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21 (1980), where, reflexively and provocatively, Pindell’s white alter-ego—the titular twenty-one-year-old—dismisses as “paranoia” Pindell’s carefully staged part confessional, part accusatory video recounting episodes of racial discrimination she suffered in her life.

Extending durationally and sonically the collaged aesthetics of Thomas’s previous studies of black female identity, Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities staged a face-to-face between shape-shifting women who have been engaged in highly sophisticated acts of media criticism through the channels of popular culture. In doing so, the show both tapped into and imagined new forms of mediated black female collectivity, multiplicity, and resilience.

Alessandra Raengo
Associate Professor of Moving Image Studies, School of Film, Media & Theatre, Georgia State University

Researched with assistance from Jenny Gunn, PhD candidate, Moving Image Studies, Georgia State University