I guess my appeal to craft materials is also another historical reference to women making art. When I was in undergrad, I couldn't always afford oil paint. Because I was in a school and still had to make work, I had to figure out ways in which to still make my art and not limit myself to “I can't make my art, because I don't have oil paint or acrylic paint.” So I gravitated toward non-traditional materials that were considered maybe, for some, a low art, but also to others a high art, if you look at outsider artists, right? I began going to Michaels craft stores, because I could afford felt, and I could afford yarn, and I could afford these little bags of rhinestones or glitter. I could get an abundance of those versus a tube of paint.
I began to acquire these materials and find meanings and ways to use them in my own work as a way of identifying myself but also making an image. That's something that I also push forward with some of my students is not to limit yourself with what you can't do, but just try to think of what you can do and use those materials that are within your own environment to make something.
When I was living in Portland, Oregon I would go to this bookstore called Powell's Books. Within the stacks of their books, I would just go up and down the aisle pulling out books on African-American artists. I remember looking at a William H. Johnson monograph and thinking at that time, "Oh, this is catalogue raisonné" and thinking how his sensibility of his line, representation of his journeys, and the people in his environment, and depicting his world, and depicting African-American lifestyles was a direct representation of who I was. It's really important for me, as an artist, to have a representation of myself so that youth could see themselves in these particular environments like museums. When they see my work, with all the art history, whether it's from William H. Johnson, to someone like David Hockney or Matisse, that when they're standing here that they see themselves.
Artist Mickalene Thomas discusses her use of craft materials, her artistic influences, and the importance of seeing oneself represented in museums.
I would say the essence of Mnonja in this painting is power, sophistication, beauty, and also a little vulnerability. I think most of my sitters and the women that I gravitate towards have all of those attributes that I look for and want to convey in my work. For this particular one I feel like she’s owning and claiming her space, which is very exciting. Looking at her up close, I’m always looking for, “Oh, I could have made it this way or that way,” but I think she’s just made exactly the way she needs to. I think she represents the American experience because she represents a whole line of women that have come before her and women that are coming after her.
I was asked to make this painting for Arts and Embassies for Ambassador Susan Rice. I thought that it would be really important to convey a female figure from my perspective and from my practice, someone who imbued the sense of what Susan Rice represented at that particular time and political stance and power but also patriotic. That’s why looking through all of my clothes that I had for Mnonja, I selected these particular colors, really subtle signifiers that would represent our flag but also represent the United States and represent Susan Rice’s position and also represent her being this African-American woman in this highly profiled position and a sense of power.
Performance plays a huge role in my practice, and I like to think that my work with any of the models that come to my space is a collaborative act. What I do and the hope is that we are both contributing almost like two dancers that come for a performance. I often think and believe that portraiture is a representation of the person who’s painting them and that a lot of times the sitters become a vehicle for the person, for the artist. I use everything in the work as how I see myself. They become sort of these stand-ins for me, and in some level they may be considered mostly self-portraits.
Have you ever thought about the connection between art and… well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.
Artist Mickalene Thomas created “Portrait of Mnonja” in 2010. Now, this piece made me stop in my tracks. The clothes, the jewelry, the shoes – it literally sparkles. “Portrait of Mnonja” has me thinking about style, the way we present ourselves, and what it says about us. Diana Baird N’Diaye, a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage, studies just that. So, Diana, I understand that you study personal adornment and style. What’s your area of expertise?
DIANA N’DIAVE: Well actually for the past 10 years, I’ve had a wonderful project called “The Will to Adorn,” and it’s looking at African-American dress and the aesthetics of identity. One of the major things that I think is distinctive about African-American dress is its intentionality. There are many, many aesthetics in the African-American community; there’s not just one, but “the will to adorn,” as Zora Neale Hurston said, was one of the most important parts of African-American expression.
MELISSA: What does the way that we dress, the way that we present ourselves, what does it say about us?
DN: Oh gosh, it says so much. It may be the community that we identify with, it may be the music we identify with, it may be where we come from, and our status or the status that we aspire to. I always say that even if you wear nothing but T-shirts and jeans and you think that “I’m really not dressing for any reason,” you’re always dressing with some idea of your identity and how you project to others in mind.
MELISSA: Even if you don’t think you have style…
DN: You have a style. Yeah, yeah.
MELISSA: I wonder what kind of stylistic choices Mickalene Thomas made in her “Portrait of Mnonja.” I bet Joanna Marsh, Head of Interpretation at SAAM, can help. So, who is Mickalene Thomas? What’s her work all about?
JOANNA MARSH: Mickalene Thomas is a contemporary artist. She’s really best known for making these elaborate paintings of African-American women. As a queer woman of color herself, she’s really interested in presenting positive images of black women that explore issues of identity, of sexuality, beauty, and power. She’s also really interested in ideas of style and kind of self-fashioning. This is really connected to her own personal biography. So, her mom was a model in New York in the early 1970s.
MELISSA: What is Mickalene Thomas’ process for creating an artwork?
JM: It always begins with photography, and it’s interesting that one of the first subjects she ever photographed was her mother. So now, in her work, she invites friends or other models to come to her studio, to sort of dress up or get styled, and then pose in a setting that she’s created in her studio.
MELISSA: I see, so Mickalene and Mnonja, presumably, got together and chose an outfit, chose a style, chose even this background, the pose, everything.
JM: Exactly, and this photo session becomes a kind of performance, not unlike the way we all perform when we get dressed in the morning and walk out in public and are presenting ourselves to the world in a certain way, right?
MELISSA: Why does Mickalene Thomas use materials like rhinestones?
JM: On a very basic level, they’re a kind of decorative element, but they’re also a symbol for the way we adorn ourselves, right? They work like makeup, or jewelry, or hair extensions, or even glasses.
JM: They’re almost an accessory to the painting.
MELISSA: No matter how you dress, your style says something about you. In “Portrait of Mnonja,” Mickalene Thomas presents a striking portrait of an African-American woman dressed to the nines. Her sparkling ensemble and unmistakable sense of style give her an air of power and personal agency, and her portrait is impossible to miss.
Bye, art nerds.
What do rhinestones, moms, and personal style have to do with American art?
SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.