Mickalene Thomas’s bright-shining stardom in the art world has collided with that of rap superstar Cardi B in the most recent “Art Issue” of W Magazine. The collagist, painter, photographer, videographer, and occasional performance artist has made the star her latest muse in a shoot exploring Cardi B’s grandeur and glamour in Thomas’s signature fashion.
Cardi B has deliberately employed her sexuality to guide her career, navigating her way through Instagram fame and reality TV infamy before breaking out in the mainstream with her number-one hit, “Bodak Yellow,” her career skyrocketing from there.
“On many levels, she portrays herself through a male gaze,” Thomas said of the charismatic, controversy-ridden rapper. “I wanted to see if she could transform herself and go beyond the prescribed notion that’s expected within an industry that wants to only perceive and present you as one dimensional.”
Thomas told W she was influenced by Latina Hollywood icons like Maria Montez, Chelo Alonso, and Rita Moreno, saying, “They were all powerful women who claimed a space for themselves, in an industry that wasn’t exactly inclusionary.”
The artist often incorporates installation into her mediums, creating polychromatic, maximalist landscapes where her muses thrive. In this instance, Thomas fluently interweaves cultural signifiers, like Huey P. Newton’s recognizable rattan peacock chair and a silky durag, into her meticulously curated studio set.
Of her work’s methodology, Thomas told Vogue, “It was really about me searching, a discovery of myself, trying to understand some of these stereotypes that were a little mysterious to me, how perception is put onto the Black body. Codes and modes of posing and dressing, how those can immediately shift your awareness of how people treat you.”
Thomas’s aesthetics often reference 1960s through 1980s fashion and visual culture, parsing through decades that encapsulated a significant period of social and political activism with the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movements. These seminal decades proved a radical transformation for Black women’s aesthetic possibilities and freedom in regard to style, as well as expanding, or rejecting, beauty standards.
“What’s happening in art and art history right now is the validation and agency of the Black female body. We do not need permission to be present,” Thomas told the Smithsonian.
Thomas’s artistic trajectory began after she saw Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series and was profoundly affected by its acute representation of the minute realities of Black family life. Thomas’s mother, Sandra Bush, became her first muse. From there, she used women she loved — as friends, family, and romantic partners — as her “muses,” portraying Black female sexuality and womanhood through the lens of someone who admired these traits as near-divine.
She ornaments her portraits with an amalgam of rhinestones and bling, exploring the simultaneously performative, sleek, and over-the-top nature of hyper-feminine identity and sexuality. Her subjects drape across her installed sets, which she often develops in her Brooklyn studio, posing as the muses in Western art masterpieces often do.
Immersed in pop culture and politics, Thomas was commissioned to design the cover art of Solange Knowles’s True EP in her signature style. She was also responsible for painting the first portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, displayed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.