Artist Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates paintings, photography, installations, and multimedia and video works that draw from art history, pop art, and visual culture. Her vibrant works have established a contemporary vision of female sexuality, beauty, race, and power, while centering queer identity. As a queer black woman, Thomas represents other black women in a way that celebrates their agency and erotic beauty.
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1. A Seat at the Table
Thomas cites a 1994 trip to the Portland Art Museum as the moment she knew she wanted to be an artist. “I saw Carrie Mae Weems’s work—specifically ‘The Kitchen Table’ series…it was transformative. Not only to me as a young black girl from Camden, New Jersey, standing in a museum in Portland, Oregon, but as a queer woman, as a young artist, seeing those works—they changed my life and allowed me to really consider being an artist.”
2. The Peacock in the Room
Thomas’s work frequently engages with race, gender, and representation through glitter, rhinestones, bright colors, fashion, and lively patterns. About this approach Thomas says, “The sparkles…are flamboyant work. It’s like the peacock in the room; it entices people to engage with the beauty…it draws people in, and then you encourage people to explore the themes on a deeper level.”
3. 21st Century Muse
In 2018, Harper’s Bazaar commissioned Thomas to create a series of images of her partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, an art adviser and former model who collaborates frequently with Thomas. Curator Kimberly Drew declared the images “an ode to black love, but also a siren’s call for a more diverse future—one in which queer, black, and brown people can imagine the radical possibilities of embracing their own beauty and agency to tell their own stories.”
4. Dare to Dream
Thomas created a poster for the “Speak Up” fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at Art Basel Miami in 2017. The poster was available for purchase at a pop-up shop and featured the phrase “Dare to Dream” over a photo of two women, including Chevremont, seemingly about to kiss. In a speech at the event, Howard Simon, ACLU Florida executive director, said, “Think about the shifts in the LGBTQ movement…one of the major things that moved that needle was the art community.”
5. Mic Drop
When asked about her role in conversations about race, gender, identity, and power, Thomas said, “As a black female queer artist, the fierce act of creating the work that I make is a courageous act unto itself. My responsibility as an artist is to continue to persevere and make the work, and that enacts change. My work celebrates and represents all types of powerful beautiful black women, period.”
—Alexa Kasner is the spring 2020 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.