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May we suggest

Interviews / November 29, 2018

Femmes Noires

Black American artist Mickalene Thomas talks about her solo show at the AGO and the challenges of getting Black artists and audiences into major institutions

Mickalene Thomas is a badass. Throughout her 20-year career the interdisciplinary artist’s lavish collages have reshaped the art historical canon. In her videos, photographs and paintings, Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Tom Wesselmann or Fernand Léger encounter powerful African American icons like Eartha Kitt, Diahann Carroll, Whitney Houston and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Her new exhibition, “Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires” opened this week in Toronto.

All of the women portrayed in “Femmes Noires” are either friends, lovers or people who have inspired Thomas by opening doors and becoming “firsts” in their fields. She boldly undoes art history’s canon of white, European representation through her juxtaposition and manipulation of images. The work is layered, fractured and recomposed. Her videos are marked by the streaky lines of distorted VHS tapes, her paintings are cut by beautiful fault lines of glitter and gemstones,and her mirrored works conceptually reshape how we see ourselves as Black women. She sees herself through the Black women in the exhibition, and hopes others will find something familiar in there as well.

Yaniya Lee: I’m interested in the public image of blackness, the art historical and popular culture images that you draw from for these works and portraits. Why do you want to engage with these particular images of blackness, or representations of Black experience?

Mickalene Thomas: For the representation and the diversity of women. I think it’s important to show that range of blackness. Often when we talk about blackness it’s sort of boxed in as [only] one kind. I think we need to recognize the various types of blackness, just as we’ve recognized the various types of whiteness. Often times, when we speak of POC—people of colour—we’re talking about one specific type of POC and for me that [distinction is] very important. My father’s side is Caribbean, from Jamaica, and my mother’s side is…we don’t really know, but they’re deeply from the South. So, specifically, I speak from an American point of view.

When you’re talking about Black people, you’re talking about a particular type of Black people. I remember when I went to New York and started living in Brooklyn, I was really discovering a huge beautiful Caribbean culture, right? And African culture. So why are we always talking about the Black American experience when the diaspora is huge? The quilt of the cloth is big.

YL: Can you to talk about multiplicity and difference in relation to your work? There are so many different kinds of blackness in it! I’m thinking about the materials, the styles, the textures that you use—there’s so much going on. Does that have to do with how you are materially representing that difference?

MT: Oh absolutely. As an artist, I’m thinking: how do you have these conversations creatively? And how do you put that in your art? That’s always the challenge for me, [to do it] without being cliché, or like “we are the world.” I think about how my grandmother used to put things together and, historically, of her journey and how she got to where she is. And then my grandfather’s journey, and who they are, and how they had to give up some of who they were to survive. [I think about] what you bring forth through generations and how you pass down the storytelling and hold onto something that’s a reminder of your history.

YL: That is the culture…

MT: …which is the culture, right. And so I’m bringing that into the living rooms, the tableaus, the flooring, [all of it] is that patchwork of it, that layering.

YL: I love the living room installations! I love the books, I love the plants.

MT:  It’s tangible, you know. Usually I use real plants, if the spaces allow, because it requires a lot of watering. Although I usually use plants that last long on low light and don’t require a lot of water. I love that juxtaposition—having real plants with fake plants and the illusion of artifice. Artifice is all about truth, and we bring truth to what we believe. We construct it, based on our experience.

YL: We project.

MT: Yeah, we construct it and we project it based on our experiences.

YL: Could you talk more about being in a Canada as a Black person? You said you were trying to maybe connect to this particular context. What have you learned since you’ve been here that you might not have known before about the Black diaspora?

MT: Well, that I want to see more of it, and that it’s more segregated than I realized, that’s what I’ve learned. I got my hair cut on Bathurst Street the other day—I think it was at Lloyd’s—and I had a great conversation with the barber there. He was from Barbados. [He talked about] his journey here and he was telling me about some places to go. In New York, you see us everywhere. Toronto is a big city and I’m like, “why am I not seeing the Black folk?” My partner and I were having breakfast and we thought, “I guess the minority here [isn’t Black],” and that’s why people are relating to me [the way that they do] when I go into certain spaces. They’re surprised that I’m there. I’m interested in that, I’m very aware of that. That’s why we’re doing the type of programming that we’re doing, I think it’s really important. I’m glad the show is going to be up for a long time. I’m coming back here and I’m going to engage the community of people. I don’t care if we have to get busloads of people, we’re going to figure this out.

YL: It’s a challenge.

MT: You know! But we’re going to do it, we’re making it happen. Reaching out to different community centres, bringing people here—it’s important to me as an artist. It’s important that they see this work and it’s important that they know that this work is here.

YL: Is that who the work is for?

MT:  Absolutely.

YL: But you know, that won’t be the main audience that comes here [to the AGO].

MT: Yeah, but it’s who it’s for and we’re going to work damn hard to make sure it happens. I’ve learned, within the past five years of my 20-year career, that it’s not enough to just hang your art on the wall.

YL: You have to create community.

MT: Yeah, and when I’m invited to these places I try to break down the barriers of how people access the work. When I did my first show in the South, at Tulane College, the curator was so invested in women seeing this work, she did so much outreach that people came on buses [to attend] the opening. They said they’d never seen so many people! There were women and children seeing the work and crying and just loving it. [When] I did my talk, there were so many people they had to turn people away. I begged them to let them in, to break their fire code. We did the talk with at least 60 to 70 people on stage with me, because there was nowhere else to sit. I said that we’re not going to turn anyone away, they came on buses to be here. And this work is for them.

YL: Because it was important to you.

MT: Because it was important. For me, where I’m going as an artist and what I want to do with my work is really [that], if I’m going to be making this work and [showing] in these institutions, we gotta bring the fucking people here. Otherwise, I don’t want to be showing.

YL: I think, for me, coming from a Black Canadian perspective, it’s wonderful that you’re American and that you’ve been doing all of this work but it has to communicate to a local audience. We have to be able to engage with it and have conversations about it.

MT: I’m coming back to do a couple of workshops and I’m invested in the programming, I’m invested in what happens during the run of the show. I’m here now putting the work up, and I’m really invested in every aspect of what’s happening with the show because it means a lot for me. I think Julie [Crooks, curator of “Femmes Noires”] fought damn hard to get me here, and she fought damn hard for me to have the entire floor. I think we owe it to each other as a team, not only her but the AGO as an institution, to make sure that this show is successful in the way that I envision it.

YL: Well, you have so much power, being here. You’re like the second Black woman ever to have a major solo exhibition in this institution in its, like, hundred-something year history. That’s a very big deal.

MT: And so we all need to take responsibility and ownership for that, right?  

YL: It’s not enough just to have you here.

MT: It’s not enough just to have me here.

Yaniya Lee

Yaniya Lee is a writer interested in collective practice and the ethics of aesthetics. She is a PhD student in Gender Studies at Queen's University.