‘Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady’ Examines Themes of Women of Color

New York artist Mickalene Thomas is noteworthy for building upon the style of 19th and 20th-century representational painting. Except she substitutes the white female nudes of the past with large women of color. Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady?” at MOCA Grand Avenue through February, presents images of the black female experience by the artist whose portrait of Michelle Obama is in the National Gallery. Thomas’ work is marked by pop culture influence and critiques contemporary ideas about race, sex and beauty. She uses bright, vivid colors to compose highly sexualized images of black women, punctuating her acrylics with rhinestone and enamel.

Born in Camden, N.J. in 1971, Thomas first turned to art as a teenager, but was preparing to study law in Portland, Ore., when she discovered works by Carrie Mae Weems at the art museum there. She returned to the East Coast and earned a B.F.A. from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and a M.F.A. from Yale. Her work is populated by images of African-American women in provocative poses, set against the backdrop of ’70s design and Blaxploitation images of her childhood.

HBO viewers will recognize her from “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” a documentary she made about her mother, which has aired on the cable channel many times since its 2014 debut. She also works in other mediums, creating, collages, films, and installations.

In a famous essay, “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger wrote that women in art were objectified as men were not. In contrast to that tradition, Thomas depicted women who challenge the viewer through their gazes from the canvas. “They are self-possessed, socially and sexually empowered,” MOCA states. “Often draped in richly hued swaths of fabric, they pose with arms and legs extended atop sofas embellished with layers of animal prints, oversized flowers, and checkerboard patterns.”

Thomas made a series of silkscreened portraits for the exhibit, which also features videos of black female performers, including Wanda Sykes, Whitney Houston, and Eartha Kitt.  Also included is her installation inspired by 1970s domestic interiors.

Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady?” will be on view Oct. 16 – Feb. 6 at MOCA Grand Avenue.