Familiarity and Freedom: Mickalene Thomas at the Henry Art Gallery

Wall of Photos MT at Henry

     I walked into one of Mickalene Thomas’ room installations for the first time at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum. The CAMSTL was one of the most modern invitations to experience art as a black person on Washington Boulevard that I’d seen at the age of 23, a dark contrast to the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park I’d grown up in, stuffed to the brim with artifacts of ancient cultures – usually in marble or leaning heavily on the oil paint. The CAM hosted artists who were still alive.

      Washington Boulevard is situated in a historic neighborhood with one of the most prominent private schools to achieve sustaining an incredibly rare and generous black student population. Across from that school is a street lined with small, up and coming galleries hosting art I feigned disinterest in for fear of being pressured to purchase something I couldn’t afford.

     Thomas’ collages of Celie from The Color Purple and video installations of Eartha Kitt and Wanda Sykes had arrived after the CAMSTL was pushed to respond to local concerns about a non-black artist who used iconic images of black people produced by other iconic black people – primarily the creators of the cultural epicenter that is Jet Magazine.

     After several panels and community discussions going over how the museum could do better, Thomas’ exhibit seemed like a flood of redemption. Her expansive portraits of black idols and interactive room installations took up space without hesitation. Her art was novel to me, impressing the impact of black contribution with pillows and plants and a curated video loop. So when her exhibit, Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tete-a-tete, opened at the local Henry Art Gallery, I cleared my Saturday and planned for a day of inundation.

     Mickalene’s interior installation opened up the Fake Fruit MTtete-a-tete exhibit, reminding me of my grandmother’s den. Seeing that familiar bowl of fake, spray-painted, golden fruit in the exhibit was unsurprisingly centering. Comfort and ease are ironically integrated into her approach given how intricate and detailed all of it is. She uses Manet as inspiration, for example. How thrilling is it to see a black woman take a famous work of art where the original black image is that of a maid and turn it into an entire exhibit dedicated to black autonomy? It’s beyond thrilling. It’s inspiring.

      “To see yourself and for others to see yourself is a form of validation,” Mickalene remarks via a recording on her website. “I’m interested in that very mystical and mysterious line that is how we relate to each other in the world,”

      One of the first of many to come, the Henry programmed a weekend’s worth of events that invited people to engage with art in a multitude of ways and was largely orchestrated by black artists. Michelle Hagewood, Associate Curator of Public and Youth Programs, reached out specifically to Dr. Bettina Judd, writer, artist, performer and the current Assistant Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, to host a conversation rested on black interiority – what it means to exist without the assumptions and even the consideration of blackness. Judd collaborated with multidisciplinary performance and conceptual artist, Crista Bell, as well as writer and teaching artist, Anastacia Renee, to carve out a space for black women to rejoice in the things that connect us. What emerged was a gathering devoted to celebrating the black woman and tending to our “interior” – mental, emotional and spiritual.

    Before introductions could take place, everyone was asked to pair up with each other and we were instructed to play hand games we’d all learned in childhood. I didn’t realize I still remembered the words – some of them at least – from almost two decades ago. In between trying to coax our memories, we taught each other the different versions of the same tunes. None of us were from the same place and we all had our own variations but the essence didn’t change and the hand motions were all just about the same.

    The Salon was projected to last an hour. It went on for almost three. We spent that time completing exercises inspired by Thomas’ artistic approach: lounging among patterned blankets and colorful pillows recreating the reclining woman, literally yelling as intentional release of the things we felt silenced about, and making collage artwork as a mode of investing energy into our ambitions. We were asked to unveil ourselves so that we could be authentically supported on our own terms, whatever that looked like, and without the burden of wading through presumption. This is the spirit of Thomas’ work.

Portrait MT at Henry    The photographs in Thomas’ MUSE revolve around her relationships with the black women in her life. She relies on that familiarity to create the intimacy depicted in her work. Some of the models are lovers, some are friends. One model in particular is her mother. While many artists depict their creator, Thomas does so dynamically. Her mother appears in various images in all of her glory, both sitting upright clad in a turtleneck and lounging nude across a couch. In one of Thomas’ more infamous pieces, her mother could be a version of Foxy Brown – a pillar of black beauty, strength and sexuality in the 70’s. She is a fully realized subject in Thomas’ work and the ways she views herself are all valid. 

     In tete-a-tete, she continues to validate that variety in her curation of artists involved in the show. The 13 artists showcased provide an array of styles, all distinct, all contributing to the same conversation. Distinction is rewarded and nothing is assumed to be the authority on where blackness begins and ends. That freedom, in art and life, is really what it all boils down too. As Thomas pushes the boundaries of style and cultural markers, Seattle is having several of its own conversations about ways of being and existing in diverse communities.

      In the face of a rapidly changing Central District and South Seattle, several spaces have been curated as a way to preserve black culture. The podcast series Hella Black Hella Seattle is as much about discussing the ever present black pulse within the city as it’s committed to giving visibility to the community through hosted events and partnerships. The Collective is another form of community preservation, dedicated to hosting a full month’s worth of gatherings that speak to every hiking fanatic, cyclist, beach and bonfire goer and a plethora of other interests. Local artists are diligently doing their part to explore and expand on community with exhibits such as conceptual artist Natasha Marin’s Black Imagination. So far, the exhibit has resulted in three crowdsourced shows, States of Matter, (g)LISTENING and Ritual Objects – bringing black-identifying folks together for discussion and the communal act of creating art.

     As black communities solidify our right to commune and celebrate, it’s encouraging to see the Henry Art Gallery, among others institutions like the Seattle Art Museum and the Northwest African American Museum, reflect this sentiment with art and programming that acknowledge the varied black experience. In the words of the late vaudeville actress, Mae West, “too much of a good thing can be wonderful”.

Living Room Installation MT at Henry


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