Meet The Artist: Mickalene Thomas on Portrait of Mnonja”

  • Artist Mickalene Thomas discusses her work Portrait of Mnonja. Thomas explains her inspirations for the painting, the role that performance plays in her practice, and the connection between Portrait of Mnonja and Ambassador Susan Rice.

    MICKALENE THOMAS: Hi, I’m Mickalene Thomas. I’m here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I’m here to speak about my painting Portrait of Mnonja. Mnonja is a friend. I met her many years ago through other friends at a party. She is Senegalese, and so we hit it off. I wanted to photograph her, so I invited her to my studio to one of my settings that I built up in the corner, a little tableau of an interior. I invited her to be one of my models for a photoshoot.

    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.
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