Artist Mickalene Thomas Explores Race, Identity, and Gender at Art Gallery of Ontario

TORONTO — Internationally acclaimed for her powerful portraits of Black women, Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) comes to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with a remarkable exhibition that sparks urgent questions about race and sexuality and how we see the Black female body. Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, which explores Black celebrity culture and Western art history through a queer feminist lens, includes paintings, video montages, silkscreens, photographs and several immersive living room tableaux. Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires is Thomas’s first large scale solo exhibition in Canada and will take over Level 5 of the AGO’s David & Vivian Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art.

A unique international partnership between the AGO and the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (CACNO), the exhibition opened in Toronto on Nov. 29, 2018. Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires is curated by Julie Crooks, the AGO’s Assistant Curator of Photography, in collaboration with Andrea Andersson, The Helis Foundation Chief Curator of Visual Arts at the CACNO.

“This exciting collaboration highlights how Mickalene Thomas’s art connects to timely global conversations about race, gender and representation,” said Julie Crooks, Assistant Curator of Photography, AGO. “For Canadian audiences, the exhibition offers not only an exciting introduction to Thomas’s work, but also an opportunity to see how contemporary art can effectively disrupt stereotypes in Western art history and challenge notions of beauty in popular culture.”

Portraits of Diana Ross and Diahann Carroll are just two of the many collage-based works in the exhibition, their larger than life faces assembled like jigsaw pieces and silk screened onto mirrored surfaces. “In Mickalene Thomas’s art, collage is both an artistic device and a philosophy of representation. Every work in this exhibition, whether painting or film, is a kind of collage – composed of images and elements that read differently depending on the context and viewer,” says Andrea Andersson, The Helis Foundation Chief Curator of Visual Arts, CACNO. “The Black women in Thomas’s art are complex subjects shaped by backgrounds, experiences, and cultures that cannot be reduced to one-point perspective.”

A centrepiece of the exhibition is Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers) (2016), a large-scale video installation which features short archival clips of iconic Black female performers from various eras, including Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, Whoopie Goldberg and Wanda Sykes. With acerbic humour and biting critique, this two-channel video projection exposes the weight of being a Black female celebrity in an often fickle and sexist entertainment industry.

Another highlight is Thomas’s Le dejeuner dur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires (2009), a monumental painting that recasts Edoaurd Manet’s iconic 1863 work. In contrast to the two white women in Manet’s work, here three Black women wear funky jewelry and outfits, glamourous makeup and fabulous coiffures. The Black women are centered and stare at the viewer with self-possessed unflinching gazes. This vibrant collage of rich colours, rhinestones and fragmented shapes is a cheeky homage to the original painting while highlighting conversations about race, gender and history.

“I’m inserting the figures of Black women, who have largely been forgotten or marginalized throughout the history of Western art,” says Thomas. “They are my muses and just as they insist on their visibility and identity, I want my viewers to feel present with fierceness and boldness as well.”

Continuing the AGO’s commitment to exhibit the very best of contemporary art from around the world, and to highlight women artists, Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires runs to March 24, 2019. The exhibition will travel to New Orleans in the spring of 2019.

This exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue with contributions by curators Julie Crooks (AGO), Andrea Andersson (CACNO) as well as an essay by Antwaun Sargent and literary excerpts by Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Lorraine O’Grady, Jesmond Ward, Edwidge Danticat and Makeda Silvera.