Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires
My attitude toward our southern neighbour swings wildly, from: “That hell hole,” to “We have so much to learn from the USA!” The work of Mickalene Thomas, and her show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) titled Femmes Noires, makes me truly appreciate the USA and the driving, pure, singular force of innovation that springs up fairly frequently in that turbulent and mesmerizing country.
“Visibility, empowerment, celebration.” That is a quote from Mickalene Thomas, talking about what she wants people to take away from her AGO show. She succeeds. It is an exultant display, uplifting to visit. So many images of queenly, glittering, sumptuous women. I guess it takes a gay, black woman to shrug off deference to a male art world and let glitter and sequins reign.
The paintings shown in the Femmes Noires exhibition – collages of oil paint, photographs, and other materials – often refer to revered works by male artists from the past, like Picasso, Manet or Ingres. The women that emerge in these paintings have a deep sense of themselves: Their gaze is frank, self-contained, self-knowing and profoundly calm in the center of riotous color and pattern.
The painting titled “Shinique: Now I Know” references the Neo-classical touchstone “Une Odalisque.” This painting, by Ingres, above, was widely reviled when it was first shown. Critics pointed to the elongated curved creature in the painting as anatomically impossible. And yet this picture has endured, sits in the Louvre to this day, and is included in every Art History survey around the world. Apparently, it had more than anatomical correctness going on.
People respond deeply to Ingres’ painting. What is it that makes people decide to redo it, or use it in provocative sloganeering, as per the Gorilla Girls famous poster above. Maybe there is something essentially irritating about “Une Odalisque” itself, that paradigm of “Orientalism.”
The Femmes Noires show is big! There are two massive galleries where the visitor can lounge in a living room environment — with potted plants, comfortable chairs and cushions — browse novels or other works about the black experience, and watch media (some random snippets are included below:)
It seemed like there was a bit of a disconnect from the present. We see Whitney, Eartha, Pam, Diana and so many other fabulous black women icons from the past but where are today’s powerful black women? In fact Mickalene Thomas has collaborated with Solange, Beyonce (The Queen!!!) and other contemporary black superstars but that work just doesn’t happen to be included in this exhibition.
I was feeling pretty good about my former homeland by the time I left the Mickalene Thomas exhibition at the AGO. What an exciting place of invention and possibility! All the fraught recriminations and anger that characterize this contentious era in the USA don’t really come up at Femmes Noires. It’s like an invitation to a new world.