Mickalene Thomas explores notions of womanhood and beauty through her work, often using her mother, Sandra Bush, a model who passed away in 2012, as a muse. This mother-daughter relationship was strained in Thomas’s high school years because of her mother’s drug addiction. Thomas used creating portraits of her mother as a way to mend the broken bond between them. Thomas has said, “I began to look at her as a person and accept her weaknesses, her failures.” Bush’s naked breast and dramatic pose reference many classical portraits of the goddess Venus. The way that her body arches back and her elbow lifts up refers to Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, while her position on the couch quotes Titian’s Venus of Urbino. From Titian, Cabanel, and Manet, to Sidibé and popular culture, Thomas is eclectic in her sources and inspirations. She references their vocabularies in order to create her own. Madame Mama Bush is a great example of the influence that Sidibé has had on the diaspora. The artist photographing her nude mother is as provocative as Sidibé’s Vues de dos—Juin, with their backs turned, just of a different time and place.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, Mickalene Thomas is known for her large-scale collage paintings, often using rhinestones as an important material. She received an MFA from Yale and has participated in residencies at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program in Giverny, France. Thomas has exhibited around the world, including at the Brooklyn Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, and La Conservera Centro de Arte Contemporaneo, Spain. The artist has won numerous prizes and grants such as the Brooklyn Museum Asher B. Durand Award in 2012, the Timerhi Award for Leadership in the Arts in 2010, a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2009, the Pratt Institute Alumni Achievement Award in 2009, and a Rema Hort Mann Foundation Grant in 2007. Thomas lives in Brooklyn, New York.
From the exhibition: Africa Pop Studio (April 1 – April 23, 2017)
Prompted by her advisor at Yale University to use a personal subject as a muse, Mickalene Thomas attempted to reconnect with her estranged mother. Taken four years before her mother’s death, this photograph of Sandra Bush, “Mama Bush” as she was often known, captures the former model’s glamour that launched her career in the 1970s. During this time, a number of black women like Bush attempted to use the Black Is Beautiful movement as an opportunity to achieve stardom within a world where many still believed beauty was a label reserved for white skin. The movement fought against the notion that black features were undesirable or less attractive to white equivalents. Although successful in convincing black Americans to embrace their features, the movement did not open the door for widespread black representation in fashion, film, and advertising as many people thought it would.
Here, Mama Bush’s name is qualified with Madame, a designation of rank and importance that matches the confident glamour she exhibits as she reclines for her daughter’s camera. Eulogizing her mother in 2012, Thomas recalled how “astonished” she was by her mother’s “sustained elegance and charisma in spite of harsh obstacles.”
From the exhibition: New Ms. Thang (May 4 – May 18, 2019)