You’ve Got Style

  • 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.

    MELISSA: Fashion, style. The way we express ourselves tells the world something about where we come from, who we are, and what we value. How is personal identity and style expressed in contemporary American art? Let’s find out.

    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.

    MELISSA: Yeah.

    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.
    Media Series