Mickalene Thomas: A Century of Black Figuration Across Black, African, and Intra-African Art Histories

Emmanuel Balogun, Ocula, November 30, 2022



When We See Us: A Century of Black Figuration in Painting at Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town (20 November 2022–3 September 2023) sutures a globally diversified legion of Black, African, and African diaspora artists through an age-old measure: time.


The exhibition's curators, Koyo Kouoh and Tandazani Dhlakama have gathered works by 154 artists, loaned from over 70 locations, to create a historical continuum of geographically diffused artistic movements and painterly traditions that articulate the many iterations of Black life.


The exhibition highlights crucial historical movements from the 1920s to the present, and combines creative gestures from across Brazil, Cuba, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and beyond. The result is a fluid and refreshing collection of works that explore the interconnections between art histories, movements, and techniques normally defined by place and time.


Nigerian modernism, which began in the 1900s, is represented in Ben Enwonwu's works, while paintings by Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, among others, hark back to the Harlem Renaissance that emerged in the 1920s United States. The Zaire School of Popular Painting, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s, is represented by artists such as Chéri Samba, Chéri Chérin, and Matundu Tanda.


The show is organised into six sections across the museum's third floor: 'The Everyday'; 'Sensuality'; 'Joy and Revelry'; 'Spirituality'; 'Repose'; and 'Triumph and Emancipation'. Together, they reflect on how African and African diaspora painters envision, present, and examine their communities and issues of concerns, from labour and health to economic and social mobility.


Close to 15 percent of exhibiting artists were born after the 1990s, which, in the context of a survey of Black figuration, both criticises and reproduces the art world's interest in flooding contemporary art markets with figurative paintings by young Black artists—ones that often conform to representing figures of African or African descent with coal-coloured skin, posing self-assured in imported wears.


Mickalene ThomasNever Change Lovers in the Middle of the Night (2006) blends rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on a rigid, wooden panel and renders two scantily clad, wide-thighed Black women with afros and limbs interlocked, one thrusting atop the other, as if engaged in a sexual act. The artist's blend of materials creates a vigorous placard encouraging Black women to reclaim agency over their contested bodies.

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