Mickalene Thomas' Femmes Noires highlights Black femininity and inequality in the modern era

By Will Lofsky

Mickalene Thomas, an African American artist from Brooklyn, N.Y., has outdone herself with her first major solo exhibition in Canada, Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

While managing to address the complexity of African femininity, Thomas highlights powerful black celebrities and the struggle for representation and inequality in the modern era.

Known for her multifaceted contemporary work, Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, features collage, silk-screen work, photography, installations and videography pushing the boundaries of modern art. The living rooms are interactive, and art fans can sit down and take in the films and paintings while exploring the exhibit.

Two living room installations at either end of the showcase feature HD videos with silk-screen paintings along the surrounding walls for her Los Angelitos Negros piece and the Groundbreaking Black Women section, which includes many abstract portraits of celebrities and the highlight reel titled Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians & Singers).

Los Angelitos Negros combines Eartha Kitt singing her 1953 track of the same name with a collage of Thomas and two other women split into different screens emphasizing eyes and lips to a song about Western Christian art’s lack of black angels throughout history. The 23 minute, 8-channel, coloured short film split between four video monitors is both amazing and painful as Kitt’s passionate voice echoes around the large room in a performance sure to give you chills.

Mickalene Thomas.  Los Angelitos Negros , 2016. Courtesy of the artist. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Mickalene Thomas. Los Angelitos Negros, 2016. Courtesy of the artist. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Thomas uses 12 minutes worth of discussions on vulnerability, sexuality, femininity and passion in Do I Look Like a Lady? to explore the theme of inequality that exists in and out of the art world. Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, Adele Givens, Whitney Houston and Nina Simone are amongst some of the icons Thomas showcases through a combination of monologues, short clips, songs and performances.

On the wall opposite to the short film, the silk screened acrylic mirror work called Diahann Carroll shot with a Polaroid and touched up on Photoshop reflects light around the room as part of a stunning series on black presentation, representation and female identity.  

Mickalene Thomas.  Diahann Carroll #2 , 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Mickalene Thomas. Diahann Carroll #2, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Another long, beautiful silkscreen on an acrylic mirror in the Groundbreaking Black Women area called Naomi Sims mounted on wood is split into multiple pieces and features a large colour spectrum with Sims looking proudly off into the distance.

Mickalene Thomas.  Naomi Sims #2 , 2016. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Mickalene Thomas. Naomi Sims #2, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. © Mickalene Thomas / SOCAN (2018).

Spanning the entire fifth floor of the AGO, minutes can turn into hours staring at Thomas’ amazing body of work. The more you look, the more you appreciate the scrupulous attention to detail in every piece.

Fortunately, the breathtaking exhibit will be open until March 24 at the AGO. Do yourself a favour and check it out. You will not be able to find anything like this in Toronto.