Mickalene Thomas II. Black Woman as “Origin of the Universe”

I thought I knew what to expect from Mickalene Thomas’s exhibit.  Of course, I thought it would be wonderful, but Thomas took it to another level in a way that made my pre-exhibit-viewing post unworthy of her actual impact.  Just as she creates worlds for her sitting models, she created a world in this exhibit, “Origin of the Universe,” her first museum exhibition that showed at the Santa Monica Museum of Art before coming to the Brooklyn Museum.

I walked into a typical gallery display, but this time, with larger-than-life-size images of black women, with lips (of various kinds) super-sized in all of the right places.  Rhinestone enamel, that’s the best way I can describe it, takes the place of black women’s flesh and bone as well as the textiles that wrap their bodies and settings.  Up close and personal, these black women seem to just shine in a way that museum reproductions will simply never be able to really reproduce. The blue veil on that Sunday-Go-Meeting hat makes the whole wall glow right up alongside the glow of blue lipstick sitting alongside.  These are not portraits of the same woman and yet they are connected and connecting.

This is my first post about an art exhibit and I am doing my best here to describe Thomas’s installation with words and language that will fall outside of the usual distant, abstract white museum-talk that we usually hear.  I want to have a deeply personal conversation with Thomas’s exhibit and so I need different language, a task that Thomas herself excels at!

“Origins of the Universe” is the re-mix of Gustave Courbet’s still controversial 1866 painting, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World).  This “language” that Thomas invents in her work is all the more apparent to me after reading the essays in the exhibit catalog, a critique Roberta Smith addresses in the New York Times.  In fact, the first essay of the catalog opens by polemicizing black beauty: not by discussing Thomas, but by providing an ode to Winslow Homer and his oil painting, The Cotton Pickers, cited as a sensitive rendering of black life and the history that the writer thinks Thomas encapsulates.  Unlike what Homer and this curator want to focus on, Thomas’s black women ain’t about no damn cotton! Along with her remix of Courbet in her exhibit’s very title and, thereby, placement of black woman AS the universe, Thomas’s paintings also explicitly un-do and re-do 19th century European art by Ingres, Titian, Renoir, and the likes.  Thomas shows that she can undertake a critique of western art, past and present, and also OVERtake it with black women as muse, subject, and world.

After witnessing these larger-than-life images and places, I walked into a room of Thomas’s vast array of collages where black women are once again pieced back together again.  To the left of these collages is a video display of a striking woman in red and a portrait Thomas has done of her: all I know at this point is that she is called Sandra AKA Mama Bush. The woman in the video poses and shines and it seems like Thomas’s rhinestones are again there to literally capture that shine.  From here I walk into yet another room, Brooklyn’s unique edition to the exhibit from its Santa Monica beginnings: an installation of four, furnished, domestic interiors made specially for this Brooklyn exhibit. These intricately patterned interiors are, of course, amazing with their level of detail— wall paper, flooring designs, pillows, hand-made furniture, 1970s album covers, shoes lying around— and all so meticulously planned.  As you walk around these four rooms, along one wall is a series of more than a dozen photographs in layered, gold framing.  It feels like you are at your grandmother’s house, walking past photos of the family, and, for black female viewers, this kind of aesthetic intimacy is, I think, exactly the point!  Photos of Sandra AKA Mama Bush line the walls.  Like I already said, Thomas creates a world, not pieces on a gallery wall, a world that gives you back to yourself.

And just when I am sure I have reached the end of the exhibit, there is a small room tucked in the back: it is a small resting place with brightly upholstered chairs, ottomans, and a bench, all made/upholstered by Thomas herself. I sit and watch a movie/documentary about Thomas’s muse: her mother— Sandra AKA Mama Bush.  We learn that her mother was/is a survivor of domestic abuse, drug addiction, and now failing health/mortality.  Mama Bush wanted to be a model but met the barriers associated with the white beauty industry; that is, until she became her daughter’s model, now immortalized in a universe for and about black women as a point of origin.  As I watch each moment of this film, a film that Thomas herself made, I can’t help but notice and literally feel the textile work of the chair I am sitting in (I spent the most time in a chair but I made sure to visit each furniture item in the room since each tapestry was different.)  I am reminded of black women’s quilting traditions and am deeply struck by the fact that Thomas chose this as the medium in which she wanted me/us to hear her Mother and Muse.  I was so overwhelmed that I decided to forego looking at anything else in the museum and just went back to where I first entered the exhibit and started all over again.

If I can be a bit territorial, I must say that I was proud to be part of Brooklyn and a member of the Brooklyn Museum (I do not always join museums in this way because they seldom represent me).  I did, originally, have mixed feelings about the lack of art replicas at the Museum Shop: on the one hand, I want to see Thomas everywhere but, at the same time, I am VERY appreciative that Thomas and the black women who she centers are not commodified as museum products for purchase.  I love that the Museum made the exhibition even bigger than its Santa Monica showing (and wish, in fact, it controlled more of the direction of the catalog).  I will have to miss Thomas’s talks at the Museum, unfortunately, since I have my last classes those days, especially the November 29 talk with/about her mother.  I love that the Museum offers: a slideshow of the installation; a playlist of 28 songs designed by Thomas to hear while you see, sit, and watch; and even an online teacher’s guide.  Like I said, Mickalene Thomas, the black women who she centers, and Brooklyn are definitely shining!