Mickalene Thomas was born in Camden, NJ in 1971. She earned a BA in Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in 200 and a MA in Fine Arts from Yale University 2002 (Mickalene Thomas, 2018). Thomas is known for her use of rhinestones, colorful acrylics, and collage in her works to explore themes of blackness and femininity. In this piece, I undertake a formal and iconographic analysis of three of Thomas’s works: Afro Goddess Looking Forward (2015), Left Behind #2 (2014), and Raquel: I See You (2018). These pieces share common formal element as well as thematic elements that I will explore in greater depth in the following sections.
Afro Goddess Looking Forward (2015)
This work uses rhinestones, acrylic, and oil on a wood panel. The work depicts an unidentified African-American woman resting on a couch indoors. The background consists of a collage of different multi colored acrylic prints segmented into approximations of different geometric shapes including rectangles, squares, and triangles. In the upper left corner, a green textured flower is painted. The visual focus of the piece is the women reclined in the middle of the work. She is wearing a colorful print robe and has Afro style hair. The hair of the women is created using sparkling black rhinestones and her eyes are a printed image of a photograph of eyes. The photographed eyes stare out from the painting seemingly directly at and almost through the viewer creating both a sense of intimacy and distance.
In this piece, we can see Thomas challenging notions of female beauty through her materials as well as the content of the work. Instead of choosing a more traditional material such as paint for the woman’s Afro, she instead uses rhinestones. These rhinestones draw attention to this symbol of African-American pride in order to also posit it as a symbol of beauty. The non-traditional material of the rhinestones not only attracts the viewer’s attention but also reflects the idea that forms of beauty exist outside of dominant or hegemonic notions of beauty. By using a material that would be considered a non-traditional or ‘craft material’ to draw attention to a feature of the women that exists outside of hegemonic notions of beauty, Thomas simultaneously expands the notions of what art can be as well as what beauty can be.
The use of a realistic black and white photograph of eyes in the college forces the viewer to confront not just the image of the women as object but the women herself as a subject. This draws attention to patriarchal structures of society that serve to reinforce notions of woman as object and the sexualization of femininity. Thomas draws attention to the eyes as a focal point of the piece to place the subjectivity of the women at the forefront of the piece. The eyes of the Afro Goddess, as the title suggests, are looking forward, perhaps to a future time where woman as object and specifically the black woman as object is transcended. Here we see Thomas exploring and expanding notions of femininity and blackness by challenging current paradigms of beauty and blackness and suggesting the possibility of a future that can move beyond these ideas being controlled by hegemonic patriarchal and racist structures. In the next piece, we see Thomas use her perspective as a queer woman to again challenge notions of beauty as well as explore the constructed nature of black bodies.
Left Behind #2 (2014)
This work uses rhinestones, acrylic, oil, enamel and silkscreen on a wood panel. The work depicts a nude African-American woman reclining on a bed. The foreground and background of the piece, while still extant, appear to meld into another due to the extensive use of collage that uses geometric shapes depicting animal, flower, and wood prints. The woman herself is primarily painted on the work which makes her stand out, however, her Afro is created using rhinestones and her leg and eyes are real world photographs. The woman is the focal point of the piece and the viewers gaze is immediately drawn to her eyes, which appear to be looking out from the painting at the viewer. The woman’s gaze generates the sense that the viewer has intruded into an intimate moment and this causes the viewer to be forced to pause and reflect.
In this work, we again see Thomas using black rhinestones for the woman’s Afro, using the same material as in the last piece to again challenge notions of what black female beauty can be. We also see the use of a real-world photograph of the eyes to again force the viewer to confront the idea of woman as object. A notable difference, however, between this piece and Afro Goddess Looking Forward is the subject in this piece is an identifiable person. In this case the piece depicts one of Thomas’ lovers, named Maya. By using a collage technique to depict Maya, Thomas explores the constructed nature of bodies of color. By using different materials in the collage of the figure of Maya, Thomas reflects on the constructed nature of bodies of color, but also opens the possibility of a reconstruction of this idea that more accurately reflects layered ideas, impressions, and concepts that construct bodies of color outside of hegemonic structures of beauty. In the next piece, we see Thomas exploring similar themes of the constructed nature of black bodies and continuing to challenge these paradigms.
Raquel: I See You (2018)
This piece uses rhinestones, glitter, oil pastel, and oil paint on a canvas that is then mounted on a wood panel. The work depicts an African-American woman resting on a couch. In the background, there is a collage of geometric shapes with red being the primary color as well as some blue directly behind the woman. The woman is wearing a black robe with white polka dots with the real-life photograph of a woman’s face representing her face and a large, almost crudely, hand drawn eye on the right side of her face. This eye is drawn in black oil pastel on a white background and is bigger the than woman’s entire face. The large eye evokes a notion of sight or seeing and breaks up the piece in a rather jarring way. Even though the eye is not centered it still seems to be the visual focus of the piece. This eye is also key to understanding the themes at work here.
In this work, we again see Thomas using the technique of collage that is a common formal theme across the three paintings. She is again exploring the constructed nature of nature of bodies of color, however this theme is not as forcefully present in this work. The woman depicted in the work is named Raquel, Thomas’s current lover and life partner. The most significant way Thomas explores the theme of femininity in this work is reflected in the visual element of the large, drawn eye. In conjunction with the title Raquel: I See You, Thomas is making a statement about how women are often viewed as objects rather than subjects. By acknowledging through her work that she sees Raquel, Thomas is affirming her status as a subject. There is an element of witnessing at play here as well, in that we see Thomas witnessing, acknowledging, and affirming Raquel’s subjectivity.
In these three works by Mickalene Thomas we see formal themes that are common amongst the works, such as the use of collage, nontraditional materials like rhinestones and acrylics, and real life photography. There are also several themes that are common among the works, as Thomas explores and confronts notions of blackness and femininity. We see the theme of the constructed nature of the bodies of color, the challenging of hegemonic standards of beauty, and the emphasis on woman as subject not object. Mickalene Thomas takes on these difficult themes and concepts in an intimate and engaging way to challenge the viewers preconceived conceptions of blackness and femininity.
Figure 1. Afro Goddess Looking Forward (2015)
Figure 2. Left Behind #2 (2014)
Figure 3. Raquel: I See You (2018)
“Mickalene Thomas.” (2018). Mickalene Thomas Biography – Mickalene Thomas on Artnet, www.artnet.com/artists/mickalene-thomas/biography.