Mickalene Thomas: Ten Black artists imagine the freedom of leisure at ICA San Francisco’s “Resting Our Eyes” exhibition.

Shaquille Heath, The Cut, January 19, 2023



In 1977, a group of Black feminist lesbians known as the Combahee River Collective met together to discuss, understand, and develop a consciousness for Black women to engage in politics. Identifying the place of Black women within the historical reality as “a continuous life-and-death struggle for survival and liberation,” these revolutionary thinkers developed the renowned “Combahee River Collective Statement.” The entire declaration is a powerful document, but one line in particular would mark the hearts and minds of generations to come: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”


This statement inspired the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Francisco’s upcoming exhibition “Resting Our Eyes.” On view through June 25, it focuses on the liberation and celebration of Black women in positions of leisure. With 20 multigenerational Black artists, including Lorna Simpson and Simone Leigh, the show invites viewers to see Black women in expressions of freedom.


“We knew that we wanted to tell the stories, the significance, the history, and the revolutionary act of prioritizing leisure and expression through adornment. We were looking for works that exemplified this visual vocabulary,” says Autumn Breon, who co-curated the exhibition with

Tahirah Rasheed. Breon and Rasheed are Black feminists who use abolition as a framework for imagining new systems within the art world. In fact, the two met through Wide Awakes, an artists collective that wants to rescue democracy with art and was founded by artist Hank Willis Thomas and the organization For Freedoms, among others. (Thomas’s work, as well as that of his mother, Deborah Willis, is featured in the ICA exhibition.) “Seeing how Autumn adorned herself, I saw myself in her,” says Rasheed. “We both come from abolitionist practices, in which this show was done. It is this care and attention that we want to model for others.”


“Autumn and Tahirah have done something that is really hard to achieve in a curatorial practice,” notes ICA SF director Ali Gass. “They have a very serious and impactful political narrative that is being told through the language of just visual pleasure and delight. As you spend time with this exhibition, I think you will understand the power of Black women’s liberation that they are asking you to consider.”


What does a Black woman’s freedom look like? It is the sparkle that reflects across the gems adorned by a woman with her dancing shoes on in Mickalene Thomas’s Love’s Been Good to Me #2. It is a daughter learning to find power by trying her mother’s lipstick in Carrie Mae Weems’s ​Untitled (Woman and Daughter With Make-up). It is blue tambourines that mimic a dream state — its pulse like a foot stomp, a hip thrust, a heartbeat — in Lava Thomas’s Clouds of Joy. It is the reclining nude of Alison Saar’s Set to Simmer. A body that is horizontal, confident and daring. A body that can finally be at rest.


Mickalene Thomas, Love’s Been Good to Me #2, 2010


There may not be a more prolific artist whose work depicts Black women in repose than Mickalene Thomas. Her celebrated paintings center everyday Black women in elevated states of leisure, pleasure, and desire — looking for moments of celebration beyond our harbored trauma. These works are often larger than life, composed of colorful rhinestones and diverse yet harmonious patterns. They present the Black woman as a subject who is glamorous and assured, sexy and free, as in Love’s Been Good to Me #2. Rest comes in many forms, and the convergence of intimacy, beauty, identity, and desire is an invaluable setting of repose.


“Rest is self-care, to have the privilege of luxuriating at any moment­ and be comfortable in my own being. It allows me to focus on the notion of leisure and relaxation as an elevated state of pleasure that we all must ascertain,” says Thomas. “Rest is a radical act for Black women, who are known to be the caretakers of others. I envision a world where Black women are being taken care of fully.”

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