Spelman College Museum of Fine Art Launches 2017 with a Solo Exhibition by Acclaimed Artist Mickalene Thomas

| February 9, 2017

ATLANTA – Spelman College Museum of Fine Art is proud to present “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities,” an exhibition featuring new work by acclaimed painter, photographer, sculptor and filmmaker Mickalene Thomas, as a highlight of its 20th anniversary celebration. This solo exhibition, which is organized by the Aspen Art Museum, features photography, mirrored silkscreen portraits, film, video and site specific installations. Thomas edits together rich portraits of herself and iconic women from all aspects of culture—performers, comedians, dancers and other entertainers—at play in her life and in her art.

Angelitos Negros 2016 2-Channel HD Video, total running time: 23:09 Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The exhibition encourages viewers to consider deeply, how personal and public figures have reflected, re-imagined and altered their own self-image to create a larger narrative of what it means to be a woman in today’s society.

The exhibition makes its Southeast debut February 9, 2017, and will be on view at the Museum through May 20, 2017. “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” continues Spelman’s emphasis on serving as a cultural hub for the community—forging meaningful collaborations with renowned artists such as Thomas.

Thomas, whose work was included in the Museum’s 2013 presentation of “Posing Beauty in African American Culture” and 2009 exhibition “Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities,” is inspired by a range of sources including art history, popular culture and feminist thought. By creating, manipulating and collaging the images and voices of a wide variety of women who inspire the artist, Thomas investigates and deconstructs conventional definitions of beauty, race and gender challenging stereotypes of how the female body is portrayed in the media. However, through collaging the women together—women she personally knows as well as women she admires—the exhibition can be seen as a portrait of the artist’s personal world, literally and physically showing the artist alongside her own mentors, muses and celebrities.

“Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers),” a two-channel video projection, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Through this chorus of sound bites by Black female comedians and singers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Wanda Sykes and musical icons Josephine Baker, Whitney Houston, Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, among others. Thomas creates moving and at times riotous portraits that explore the relationship between language, gender, race and power.

“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” includes several noteworthy video-based works. “Angelitos Negros,” for example, features Eartha Kitt, who Thomas has revisited several times throughout her career. In her 1953 emotional performance about racial discrimination, Kitt demands that painters “Paint me some Black angels now,” a remake of a song by Andrés Blanco Guzman based on “Pintame angelitos negros” by Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco. By manipulating Kitt’s performance, Thomas subtly asserts herself as the conductor of a larger orchestra, as she selectively cues different video montages at a time. The selected footage then serves as her instruments, or as an ensemble, wildly performing in harmony.

“Me as Muse” is a multimedia video installation in which Thomas challenges and disrupts historical perceptions of beauty, fictional spaces, and traditional gender roles. In this video, Thomas incorporates her own reclined nude body; she rehearses the very act of painting and stretches the boundaries of art history itself. As such, she introduces new spaces for Black women to occupy.

“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” introduces “Screen Tests,” a series of silent films that are inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” In these experiments, she pushes the boundaries of her practice and constructs a psychological examination of women subjects, allowing the viewer and sitters’ gazes to interlock.

The exhibition also presents a new body of mirrored silkscreen portraits that are informed by the movie adaptation of “The Color Purple,” which Thomas initially saw with her mother when she was 14 years old. The interplay between all of the women in the film ignited an interest in gender and language that she regularly explores through her work. These mirrored silkscreen portraits feature layered, superimposed stills of the principal characters that capture their emotion, gestures and reactions, and literally reflect the complicated, shifting and overlapping roles and perceptions of women who represent diverse types of beauty, intelligence and strength.

Thomas transports viewers, inviting them to dwell in the dimly lit 1970s inspired interior settings including chairs, ottomans, and large floor pillows designed by Thomas. Situated throughout the exhibition, these lush salons include books by influential Black writers including Lorraine Hansberry, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, and many others. Within these tableaus without walls, Thomas makes the rich discourses, which are available to visitors, and further encourages them to engage, read, reflect and discuss their personal relationships to the images and ideas on view.

“‘Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities’ exemplifies the commitment that the Museum has had to championing the aesthetic and technological innovation made by Black women artists since it opened in 1996,” noted Museum Director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., C’93. “Thomas’ continued and rigorous engagement with Black women muses resonates deeply with the intellectual, creative and activist charges that the Spelman College community continues to lead.”

Thomas created the works in “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” in 2016 while she was the Gabriela and Ramiro Garza Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Aspen Art Museum. “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” is curated by Courtenay Finn, curator at the Aspen Art Museum. According to Finn, “‘Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities’ is a timely and important celebration of the Black female body. The women in Thomas’ work meet the camera [and the viewer] head on, simultaneously embodying boldness, vulnerability and power. In creating this collage celebrating diverse types of beauty, strength and intelligence, Thomas reminds us all of the multitude of ways to be a muse, mentor and celebrity.”

Thomas said, “The women in my work put up a formidable barrier to the cliches traditionally laid on them, specifically Black women in art. They look right back at the viewer with self-knowledge demanding to be seen while creating the impression of seeing right through the viewer. By depicting women of color, I’m raising their visibility and inserting their presence into an art historical conversation, portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty and background. I’m working to diversify the representation of Black women in art. I’m hoping that someone standing in front of my art will get the same feeling I got when I stood in front of the work of Carrie Mae Weems: a sense of possibility and accessibility. Just as my muses insist on their visibility and identity, I want my viewers to feel present with fierceness and boldness. I want them to claim their rightful space in the world.”

“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities,” aligns with #BeYourOwnMuse, the Museum’s 20th anniversary interactive campaign, which encourages viewers to define their own voices and creative potential.

Due to mature content and adult language, visitor discretion is advised.

“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities,” is organized by the Aspen Art Museum. Spelman College’s presentation is made possible by the Wish Foundation and the LUBO Fund.

More information: http://museum.spelman.edu/events/art-papers-live-mickalene-thomas/

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