Artist Mickalene Thomas has dedicated much of her life’s work to representations of Black women, creating portraits of Michelle Obama, Solange Knowles and Cardi B—the latter someone Thomas photographed in 2018 for one of her now-signature elaborately decorated and textured sets. Melding pop-cultural and art-historical references, she layers, fragments and refracts the adornments of Black femininity, sexuality and beauty in all their multiple glories.


Born in Camden, New Jersey, Thomas, 51, grew up in Hillside and East Orange. In her 20s, she was working as a paralegal in Portland, Oregon, but quit to become an artist after seeing artworks by Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Museum of Art. She went on to receive a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute and an M.F.A. from Yale University (and has taught at both). Today, she lives in Brooklyn, and her paintings, installations, collages and video works are in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.


Thomas’s influence resonates in the pop and celebrity culture that she has mined in her own works for decades. Her artistic eye is wide-ranging, and she has worked in many forms—as a magazine photographer; on-screen (she directed Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a documentary that aired on HBO about Sandra Bush, her mother and muse); in fashion (she worked with Dior to re-create the Lady Dior handbag); and via Deux Femmes Noires, a platform she built for young artists with her partner, the curator and collector Racquel Chevremont. Connoisseurs of Thomas’s art can also spot it on television, like Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires—an acrylic, rhinestone and enamel panel that spotlights three Black women in bombastic allure—which appeared in the Fox drama Empire.


In January, Phaidon published the first comprehensive monograph of her work, with writing by Roxane Gay and Columbia University art historian Kellie Jones. From her studio in Brooklyn, Thomas, whose daily schedule often goes out the window, spoke to WSJ. about the divine chaos of collaboration, collecting, teaching and bookmaking.


What was the process behind publishing your first comprehensive monograph?


It was quite arduous in the sense that it took five years. It was a labor of love. I was part of the creative process all the way and needed to make some executive choices in how I wanted the book. That was challenging. Whether it’s printed matter or a photograph or a painting, I treat that particular object as an art piece—it has concepts of my work, ideas and aesthetic. A book to me is an art form: the weight of the pages, how the images sit, the color, how the paper feels in your hands. That’s all considered. I don’t want to assume that everyone knows who I am. What I want is to have people attracted to something and go, “Oh, what’s this Black woman on this cover? What is she doing? What’s this about?”


In addition to the book, you’ve done a number of more public collaborations, like with Solange, Dior and Deux Femmes Noires. What does collaboration offer you and your work?


Collaboration offers me insight into my work that I otherwise wouldn’t know is possible. Whether it’s collaborating with my partner, Racquel Chevremont, with Deux Femmes Noires curatorially, mentoring and/or financially supporting artists, it’s really about, How can I create something new from this? What excites me? As a teacher, I always make collaboration part of the syllabus. I always pair people with the most unlikely person they would ever think to work with. At first you can see they’re kind of shaking in their seats. They’re shifting and they’re a little agitated, but then they become best friends. They support others throughout the rest of their lives and careers.

That discomfort is often what brings about the exciting part.


Exactly. Discomfort, the unknown, the fear, all of that movement in your body or that voice in your head, when you push through that, something incredible happens. It’s good to be open in creative spaces. That’s why film is so exciting. There are so many different collaborators. All those people are essential to the process. I learned a lot doing my first documentary—the producer’s point of view, the cinematographer, the editing process, learning new ways of working, cutting, slicing and telling a story through a series of images.


From your use of layers and collage to conceptual notions of Black women’s self-fashioning and beauty, masking is an important motif in your work. What are the various forms of masking that appear in your day-to-day life and your art practice?

Passing, posing—you’re having to live a double consciousness. I think we all do that on many levels and in various degrees. I’m one way when I’m with my 9-year-old versus when I’m with my production manager. As artists, putting your work out there in the world, when you’re having to speak, you become performative. Your work becomes performative. You’re always having to shift, depending on the audience. I’m very conscientious of like, What am I doing today? Who do I have to be today? How do I have to deliver? What role do I have to conform to to be successful? There are pros and cons to that notion of having to wear la lucha libre, putting on these masks. Even more now we’re all forced to wear masks—in a different way to prevent ourselves from getting sick. That’s a different cover-up. We’re looking and identifying with one another in a completely different way.

Your “favorite things” are a beautiful selection. Do you consider yourself a collector?


I do. I was talking to my production manager here and saying, I’ve got a lot of stuff. Maybe I’ll create some altars and create this new project. It sparks something in me. I collect a lot of things. I hold on to things and I keep things. My mother died the year my daughter was born, but before she died, she had this James Baldwin book, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and she wrote a little note to my daughter about it. My daughter loves this book. That’s her only connection to her grandmother on my side. When my mother died, I went to her home, and I cast some of her things in bronze, because I wanted to keep them. I needed to create an art object. There’s so much history and memory to them. I’m not a hoarder, but there are things that I connect to that have sentimental value for me. When I see things out in the world, I want to add to that narrative of my collection and have it tell a bigger story of who I am.


And here, in her own words, a few of Mickalene Thomas’s favorite things:


“I started getting into crystals maybe 15 years ago. They’re futuristic and have history. Draping the amethyst are my onyx beads that I carry with me when I’m doing talks. It makes me feel centered and calm, like a badass. I was raised a Buddhist. I’m still a practicing Buddhist. I use these beads when I chant morning and evening. To the left is the ‘Model of the Moment.’ I found her at a thrift store. I’m interested in the history of Black women, beauty and pageants. On the far left is the Mexican wrestler mask a friend gave me. It was an inspiration for my Brawlin’ Spitfire series, which was also inspired by the Exquisite Mayhem books that I was reading—the Black female as Amazonian goddess, wrestling with themselves. In front, you have the comics by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons that a friend of mine introduced me to when I was an undergrad in 1995. I fell in love with the series of Martha Washington. It eerily talks about a head of state similar to Trump. On the far right, the mini-poster that says ‘Frida. Kara. Georgia. Mickalene.’ was sent to me by a young printmaker. It was a reminder of who I could be, where I can go, who to look for as mentors, my longevity as an artist. To the left are some of my favorite books—some of the moment, and some that I reference in my work. Atop the bookstack [in the box] is the vintage Naomi Sims wig given to me by Nikki Nelms, a friend and collaborator throughout my photographic practice. In the very middle is a bust of Mickalene with the wig. In graduate school, I got one of these head busts, took it apart, created a mold, did a cast of my head and put my own face and neck on it. I was thinking of how salons become hubs for Black thought, Black creativity, Black ideas, Black gathering and support. Leaning on the mannequin is the Eartha Kitt VHS. I had the privilege of seeing her the year before she died, on my birthday, at the Carlyle [hotel, in New York City]. She is this incredible, intelligent, beautiful woman activist, a shape-shifter who has persevered.”

FEBRUARY 7, 2022

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