US artist Mickalene Thomas shines light on black women’s plight in first Hong Kong show

Through portraits, prints and video, African American addresses the prejudice facing America’s ‘last minority’ – her fellow African American women

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 5:36pm

Mickalene Thomas is angry. The American artist, in Hong Kong for her first solo exhibition in the city at Lehmann Maupin, has just heard that the mayor of a predominantly white town in West Virginia publicly applauded someone’s particularly loathsome description of Michelle Obama. A county official from the town of Clay had called the first lady an “ape in heels” on Facebook and Beverly Whaling, the white mayor, responded with a gleeful, “Just made my day”.

“It ignited a fire in me and churned something in my soul,” Thomas says.

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For someone who is a minority twice over – Thomas is an African American artist who is also a lesbian – such deep-seated prejudice among unapologetic white supremacists is infuriating, but not surprising.

“The world has moved forward in many ways, but we have also been blindsided in many ways for thinking that the world has moved forward when it comes to race and femininity. There is a lot of misunderstanding in our country, a lot of issues that have been swept under the carpet,” says Thomas, just a week after the American election was won by a candidate accused of being a racist and a misogynist.

The artist, who made a silkscreen print of Michelle Obama in 2008 (called Michelle O to reference that most glamorous of first ladies, Jackie O) and whose late mother used to regularly sit for her, has long been preoccupied with race and gender issues. She creates prints, paintings, videos that exalt the beauty of black women and place them centre stage, for once, given Western art has historically largely ignored them or denigrated them as servants to the white Olympias.

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“As an artist I ask myself how I can have an impact,” says Thomas. “I have looked at Western art history and its notions of beauty and relationship – think Manet and Courbet – and found that images of women deemed iconic did not resonate with me. I wondered how I could change those discourses and attack an art history that has never deemed black women important enough to put forth.”

She calls black women “the last minorities” in America. “There is the white man and women, then black man and other people of colour, and last of all, you have the black woman. Black woman comes last in many aspects still,” she says.

People still think they can get away with insults reserved for black women, even when a black woman is the first lady, the artist says. “It’s depressing. No matter how far we’ve come, how we’ve made an impact in the world, how we’ve inspired the world, we are still put in a box.”

In the US, the New York-based artist responded with a new exhibition at the Moca Grand Avenue in Los Angeles called “Do I Look Like a Lady?”, which features an installation inspired by 1970s interior decorations and a video collage of black, female performers such as Eartha Kitt and Whitney Houston – embodiments of black female power and beauty.

For Hong Kong, she has brought a selection representing the broad range of her practice. There are portraits of women made with collages of materials, some more realistic than others, in a room where the floor has been turned into a mosaic of linoleum and carpets. Colourful, thickly padded seats add to the impression of feminine domesticity.

The realistic portraits are of models visiting her studio and they are beautiful and seductive, decorated with glittering rhinestones – not, on first sight, a radical interpretation of femininity.

“I work with both female and male models and they are all individuals who possess femininity. They can be transgender women, men transforming themselves into women, men who identify themselves as men but who want to put on a dress. With this kind of portraits you think they conform to expectations of femininity but maybe the person in the picture is a man. I don’t want to disclose that. It is about gender fluidity,” she says.

As for the flooring and chairs she’s brought to the gallery, the patches and layering reflect the multiplicity of identities and of how we all put on masks.

“I am interested in the notion of artifice and layered meanings. In lots of homes, when you pull up a carpet there’s linoleum, and when you pull up the linoleum there’s wood. It is part of the artifice, the masking,” says Thomas.

“The chairs are the same. When you peel off the top cover, there are layers underneath. There’s no right or wrong about it. Masking can be a process of beautification and how we construct our space to express ourselves in a particular moment.”

“Mickalene Thomas: the desire of the other”, Lehmann Maupin, 407 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Tue-Fri, 10am-7pm; Sat, 11am-7pm. Ends January 7