In a documentary titled All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story (1982), an interviewer asks the singer: “If a man came into your life, wouldn’t you want to compromise?” Kitt laughs rambunctiously at the inquiry, asserting that there is no compromise in love. “I fall in love with myself,” Kitt tells him. “I want someone to share me with me.” She was as much a muse to herself as she was to others, including New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas, who includes Kitt alongside several other black women in her show Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
It is impossible to ignore Kitt’s boisterous voice belting out “Angelitos Negros” (Little Black Angels), which is amplified throughout the entirety of the museum. In the opening of the song, she asks why there are never black angels depicted in paintings in church; throughout her lyrics she begs a fictional painter to “paint me some black angels now.” The camera zooms in and out, as tears fall down Kitt’s cheeks as the song progresses. It is a visceral performance because Kitt doesn’t only want to see black angels: she wants to see herself, she wants you to see her, too. Thomas’s “Angelitos Negros #1” (2016) displays Kitt’s performance on three 2-channel HD screens and prolongs it to a little over 23 minutes. In addition, and in tandem with the work, Thomas has included herself, along with three other performers in the video. They all fashion themselves like Kitt — a black turtleneck and a wig cropped just below the ears, flipped and curled — and imitate her movements as they lip-sync the lyrics. There are moments when Kitt, Thomas, and the other performers seem to be looking at you. On an adjacent wall, Thomas’s “Polaroid Series #10” (2016) includes snapshots of the performers from the video smiling, laughing, staring at the camera.
The makeshift living room that Thomas has created for the exhibition features a library of books by black authors. I pick up Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou and read the last paragraph of her introduction:
“Women should be tough, tender, laugh as much as possible, and live long lives. The struggle for equality continues unabated, and the woman warrior who is armed with wit and courage will be among the first to celebrate victory.”
The living room is a homage to the domestic environment of Thomas’s childhood. It includes ottomans and pillows covered with various textiles —polka dot, floral, multi-colored houndstooth, plaid, stripes — and rugs that vary from the size of a lunch tray to that of a welcome mat. The amalgam, to some, might seem gaudy, but for Thomas is reflective of the communal spaces where the mentors in her life — her mother, her aunts — once gathered. Sitting in the space, I begin to remember the living room of my great-grandmother in Little Rock, Ar. and my grandmother’s in St. Louis, Mo., and the ways in which I was always welcome to learn and grow in those spaces. Similarly, viewers are encouraged and invited to sit in Thomas’s “living room.” The books — Richard Wright’s Native Son, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, among others — are present to allow viewers to engage with black life beyond what is on view. Thumbing through the titles, I pick up Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus and read a line from the play: “Exposure iz what killed her,” she writes in the first scene. The play is based on the life of Sara Baartmen, a woman who was taken from South Africa and exhibited onstage in 19th-century Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus.” Baartmen was ogled over — in both life and death — as a spectacle because of her large posterior and genitalia. As I read the line from Parks’s play, I looked up at Eartha Kitt once more and wondered about the ways in which black women are exposed both autonomously and through subjugation, and the toll that takes on their bodies. In contrast, I wonder, how they find their own voice and reimagine themselves in both public and private?
I find something of an answer in Thomas’s “Do I Look Like a Lady? (2016),” featuring comedic, musical and theatrical performances by black female celebrities. Thomas has compiled snippets into a 12-minute, 2-channel HD projection. I recognize Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, Wanda Sykes; when I need assistance identifying other women, I look up at my mother (who I invited on my second viewing of the exhibition), who lists names like Millie Jackson, Donna Summers, and LaWanda Page. This moment enhances the impact of the show: me looking up, and to, my mother, who has become my muse in a way.
While the performances fulfill an entertainment function, they still cause me to ponder the weight that black women have carried. How the humor of the black female comedians is rooted in pain. How Whitney Houston’s life was arguably as tragic as her death. How often these women have been called ugly, inferior, their bodies only reserved for the entertainment of others. Yet Thomas reimagines them, looking at their respective stages as platforms from which to rewrite and reclaim their stories, overriding the oppressive narratives that have undermined their impact.
On accompanying walls in the various galleries featuring Thomas’s work are stills from the film The Color Purple. Thomas has layered the images and used various filters to manipulate the colors. In “Shug Kisses Celie” (2016), “Miss Celie’s Blues” (2016), “Blues” (2016), and “Sister: Suge Avery Breakfast” (2016), the artist reflects on the importance of the film in her personal life. Thomas tells me that The Color Purple was the first time she saw the possibility of love for two black women onscreen. “I remember how that shaped me,” she says. “And it was so powerful. I was like 13. [I was like] ‘Wow. So, I’m not alone. There is a possibility for that to be recognized.’” In three of the five works, there are small mirrors in which the viewer can see themselves.
Thomas’s site-specific piece “No Good Is Going to Come to You Until You Do Right By Me” (2017), featured on the museum’s 60-foot long Project Wall, is also a still from The Color Purple. Thomas has selected one of the most compelling scenes from the film, in which Celie, who has been downtrodden by her husband Mister throughout the film, reclaims her narrative. As she leaves the house and Mister furiously follows, attempting to grab her, she points two fingers toward him and says: “Everything you done to me, already done to you.” It is not only the vastness of the still that is most captivating, but is the positioning of Celie’s fingers jutting out at the viewer that most stuns. “Until you do right by me,” Celie utters in a scene prior. “Everything you touch is going to crumble.” And, I am immediately inclined to think of this as more than Celie telling Mister to do right by her, but also the several onlookers who visit the exhibition, the white gaze that is ubiquitously employed on the black female body, and art institutions in and of themselves in their negligence to include or problematic ways they display black bodies. In “No Good is Going to Come to You,” Celie fearlessly returns the gaze and insists that she sees you, too. Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities is not only about looking at black women, it is about them observing the world around them and finding their place in it, and even amidst the trials and tribulations waged against them, find ways rejoice.
Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities continues at the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis through December 31.