A nipple. An ass in tight panties. Arched feet in heels. A furtive glance caught in the mirror. Typically, these are things only lovers see, but it’s something Mickalene Thomas clues you in on too. In MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête at the Henry Art Gallery, the New York-based artist, who is best known for her huge multi-textured paintings, focuses on her photographs and video artworks that include her friends, lovers, and even her mother. The exhibit also includes hand-picked photographs from artists that have inspired Thomas’s own work, from Zanele Muholi to Carrie Mae Weems. As a visitor, we are to understand Thomas’s “muse” not only as a person or people but also as a collective body of work from other artists.
The images described above come from her Je t’aime and Je t’aime deuxinstallations, both twenty minutes long, black and white videos shifting between different limbs belonging to Thomas and her partner/muse Racquel Chevremont, and scenes of an intimate encounter. Projected in a dark box of a room on four different screens, this was the first gallery I wandered into. I was alone. Completely distracted by a clip of Thomas sensually massaging her own nipple, I aimed my ass for a tiny black stool and missed, landing instead on my back with my two feet in the air, not unlike those of Chevremont in the video. I righted the situation quickly, no one saw, and I regained my cool. I could have spent all day in that room—not because I’m a perv, but there was just something so true and vulnerable about the honest way you look at someone you love. Hungrily. Nakedly. Sexily, even. Something an ad executive might see through and exploit to sell a perfume.
In the main gallery, there’s a mock-wood-walled living room arranged on a low stage, replete with brightly upholstered furniture, vinyl records, a dope shag carpet, and four of Thomas’s pictures on the walls. In the center of the set-up is an old school television, playing a short documentary about Thomas’s late mother, Sandra Bush, called Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman. Bush is a magnetic woman—from strutting in beauty pageants to becoming a drug addict finding her way to sobriety, she recounts her life, telling the audience how she became a beautiful woman, how she always was a beautiful woman.
Thomas’s mother reminds me a lot of my grandmother. The casual glamor and brilliance of their own lives acts as a kind of beacon for others. My Gramma Louise was a blues singer in Kansas City. Her old apartment looked a lot like the living room in the gallery—hers too was decorated with old Billie Holiday pictures, sculptures and other artifacts gifted and collected from around the world, velvety furniture that had wild and interesting lives of its own if only inanimate things could talk. I remember she’d sometimes pull me out on the porch during a thunderstorm, just to listen. Speaking honestly, sometimes I find the phrase “Black girl magic” kinda corny, but at its core, the strong connection to one’s inner self, resilience, and immaculate taste displayed by both Bush and my grandmother is what that epithet is getting at.
That, to me, is the brilliant thing about Black artists in what’s been traditionally non-Black spaces. Yes, Thomas references major white artists in the Western canon like Edouard Manet in her Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femme Noires. But in her version, how does the meaning of the original change? What is she communicating by flipping the script, replacing the original three with Black women, all looking directly at the viewer? I’m asking you!
I understand the relationship these women (in this specific photograph and the women in the exhibition as a whole) have to each other and their symbology within Thomas’s work because their sexuality, beauty, and power is something that I recognize within myself and my community. The hair, the skin, the nails, the clothes, the butt cheeks, the areolas, the noses, the earrings, the references are all mine. Ours. I am my own muse, ripe with meaning, history, and grounds for inspiration to create. I think this is what Thomas is trying to tell us. And that’s what makes her work so wonderful.