Tuesday, March 26, 2019

AGO - Femmes Noires

March 2019 - Toronto ON

This exhibit was very different from the one we had just seen, Impressionism.

I quite liked these works because of the colour and vibrancy. I also liked the collage effect.

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires upends and overturns familiar representations and monolithic notions of Black women today.

This exhibition, developed in a creative partnership between the AGO and the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, presents a bold new collection of Thomas’s vibrant, colourful and provocative paintings, silkscreens, photographs, time-based media and site-specific installations exploring how Black women are represented in art and popular culture.

The exhibition also highlights Thomas’s collage work and the inspiration she takes from popular art histories and movements, including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and the Harlem Renaissance.

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires is the first large-scale solo exhibition by this African-American contemporary artist to be staged in Canada. It will spark timely and urgent conversations about race, representational politics, Black celebrity culture and sexuality as seen through a Black queer feminist perspective.

I first saw a piece of her work in Boca Raton FL a couple of years ago and was immediately impressed.

This impressive canvas is the first thing you see!

Mickalene Thomas was born on January 28, 1971 in Camden, New Jersey. She was raised by her mother Sandra "Mama Bush" Bush, who, at 6'1" tall, modeled in the 1970s. She exposed Mickalene and her brother to art by enrolling them in after-school programs at the Newark Museum, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York. Thomas' mother raised her and her brother Buddhists. As a teenager, Mickalene and her mother had a very intimate and strenuous relationship due to her parents' addiction to drugs and Thomas dealing with her sexuality, which she documented in the short film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother.

During her early career she found herself immersed in the growing culture of DIY artists and musicians, leading her to start her own body of work. Mickalene noted that when she became an artist, fashion was always "in the back of my mind" as a source of inspiration. Most influential to her was the work of Carrie Mae Weems, especially her Kitchen Table and Ain’t Jokin series, which were part of a retrospective held at the Portland Art Museum in 1994. Thomas describes the encounter in this way: "It was the first time I saw work by an African-American female artist that reflected myself and called upon a familiarity of family dynamics and sex and gender." Weems’ work not only played a role in Mickalene Thomas’ decision to switch studies and apply to Pratt Institute in New York, but to use her experience and turn it into art.

Thomas’s work is also distinctive in its foregrounding of queer identity and themes: she is a queer woman of color representing women of color in a way that emphasizes their erotic beauty. By emphasizing the women’s striking presence and sensuality along with their assertive gazes, Thomas empowers these subjects, representing them as resilient, stunning women who command the spectator’s attention. The sitters have the control and power of the gaze, and when this exchange is between women, it subverts the traditional dominance of the male gaze in art and visual culture. Thomas’s queer identity is foregrounded, for example, in her painting and print edition entitled Sleep: Deux femmes noires (2012 and 2013), in which we see two female bodies intertwined in an embrace, on a sofa, thus highlighting for her audience the femininity, beauty, and sexuality of women lovers.


  1. ...WOW, what an exhibit. Some of these look like elegant patchwork quilts, perhaps crazy quilts! Jackie, thanks for sharing these wonderful images. Enjoy your day.

  2. This is an amazing exhibit. I enjoyed reading the information provided. Happy Tuesday!

  3. So very cool. Thanks for sharing this. Very nice.

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