NEW ORLEANS — Visitors to Mickalene Thomas’s solo exhibition Femmes Noires at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans are greeted with one of the artist’s more iconic works: “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires” (2010). The work depicts three Black women lounging luxuriously on patterned blankets and staring defiantly at the viewer. It is modeled on a photograph by Thomas from the same year, “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” — itself a re-creation of Manet’s 1863 oil painting of the same name — but the surface of Thomas’s painting is bedazzled with glittering rhinestones. This monumental (24-by-10-foot) work exemplifies Thomas’s project of restaging images from the Western canon of art history to incorporate Black women.
Femmes Noires highlights this aspect of Thomas’s practice — which spans photography, video, painting, and installation. The exhibition includes several mixed-media two-dimensional works on mirrors and canvas, as well as three videos and an immersive installation that features stacks of books tucked into corners throughout the gallery space. The works present a decidedly multifaceted portrait of Black womanhood, one that is built on strategies of collage. Her subjects are both personal (video self-portraits of Thomas and of her partner) and public — for example, women from literature and popular culture such as Shug Avery and Celie from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, comedian Wanda Sykes, singer Whitney Houston, and model Naomi Sims. As Julie Crooks, who co-curated the show with Andrea Andersson, writes in her catalogue essay, “[Thomas’s] project projects a plethora of references, negotiations, and aesthetic choices which, when brought together (or collaged), create new possibilities for seeing a range of beautiful Black bodies.”
While this is undoubtedly central to the artist’s work, what interests me most about this show in particular is how Thomas creates a welcoming space within the gallery in which viewers have the time to properly digest and reflect on these representations, as expressed in the time-based media of videos and books.
According to a March 2019 study “Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums” (including public, private, and university galleries) by the Public Library of Science, overall only 12.6% of works in these collections are by female-identifying artists and only 1.2% are by artists who identify as Black/African American. Crooks discusses in the catalogue “the historical erasure of Black representation in a space seen as a bastion of European art,” referencing Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s takeover of the Louvre for their music video “Apeshit.” In addition to their racial and gender biases, these spaces generally lack seating and any indication of creature comfort. In other words, they don’t encourage visitors to spend time there — not the length of time needed, say, to read a book or watch a stand-up comedy routine.
This is perhaps why the two spaces that comprise Thomas’s “Living-Room Tableaux” (2019) are so surprising. Armchairs upholstered in brightly colored patterns, ottomans, large, lush houseplants, and stacks of books invite viewers into an area demarcated by charmingly mismatched linoleum tiles. The domestic scenes reflect Thomas’s own childhood homes and, according to Crooks, “serve as diasporic spaces of comfort and intimacy — not only for Thomas, but for those of us who viscerally experience/d the recreation.”
The areas are inviting, but also seem out of place. One tableau is set on the edge of the first gallery in the museum’s window, where it recalls a department store window display, while the other is more integrated into the exhibition. When I turned the corner to the tableau staged in the middle of the gallery, I asked the guard if visitors were allowed to enter it, and read the books. (The answer to both questions is yes.) These two tableaux transform the white cube into a domestic oasis, and in doing so alter the experience of viewing the artwork within them.
Projected on the walls around the seating area is Thomas’s 12-min 2-channel video “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers)” (2016), which layers together clips of Black female performers including Wanda Sykes, Tina Turner, and Nina Simone. Several clips are projected simultaneously, creating a sort of Jeopardy-style grid on two perpendicular walls. Visitors can lean back in the comfy chairs and leisurely spend time with the range of women inhabiting this space. As Thomas explained of this film series in a 2016 interview, “together the thread of the music and the jokes tell this story of being a black woman. It’s sort of like, who is a black woman? What is a black woman?”
Books by Black writers in the corners of the gallery — primarily by women — such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist, and W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, break up the standard flow of the space, prompting viewers to stop and consider these objects. “Living-Room Tableaux” and its assorted elements reframe the gallery space, allowing (and perhaps impelling) viewers to alter their behavior from what’s expected in an art institution. A place that usually requires distance now welcomes touch and intimacy. Thomas also reframes with her portraits and figurative works. Her artworks ask the questions she draws from the performers: “Who is a Black woman? What is a Black woman?” Hand-in-hand, these unexpected installations ask: What is a gallery space? Who is it for? And what can it be instead?
Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires is scheduled to continue at the Contemporary Art Center New Orleans (900 Camp Street, New Orleans, Louisiana) though June 14.
Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Cognizant of the importance of discussions around art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore the exhibition virtually here as many of us continue to self-isolate.