Arts Society & Culture

Mickalene Thomas highlights her muses at GMOA

Mickalene Thomas, "La leçon d'amour," 2008. © Mickalene Thomas. Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The word “muse” conjures an image of an ethereal ancient Greek figure, but artist Mickalene Thomas has a different, more grounded set of muses, comprising strong African-American women, including her mother, friends and former lovers. Thomas is best known for her large-scale paintings of women, which complicate the art historical representation of female beauty and reconsider tropes around femininity, identity and desire.

Currently based in Brooklyn, Thomas earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at Pratt Institute in 2000 and a Master of Fine Arts at the Yale University School of Art. She experimented with photography by taking photographs of herself and her mother. For each image, Thomas creates a tableau with furniture and fabrics that the models pose within. She uses stylistic influences from the 1970s, the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism as she puts forward a complex depiction of what it means to be a woman and an expansive definition of beauty.

The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia will present the exhibition “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête” from Oct. 14 through Jan. 7, 2018. More than 40 works by Thomas and artists whose work she has selected will be on view.

Thomas’ work both deconstructs and reappropriates art history while it reflects a personal community of inspiration. Her photograph “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires,” for example, reimagines Edouard Manet’s famed painting of a bohemian picnic with three women who are close friends of the artist.

“We are excited about the opportunity to exhibit the work of this cutting-edge contemporary artist,” said Shawnya Harris, the museum’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art. “We anticipate that our audiences will be engaged and fascinated with works that are both accessible and thought provoking.”

Thomas served as curator of the other artists’ works on display in the exhibition, an installation of work by fellow photographers that includes specific works of art that have inspired her. Artists include Derrick Adams, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Malick Sidibé, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems.

This exhibition is organized by Aperture Foundation in New York, a not-for-profit foundation that aims to connect the photo community and its audiences with the most inspiring work. This exhibition is sponsored by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc. and locally by UGA’s Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art.

Programs related to the exhibition include 90 Carlton: Autumn, the museum’s quarterly reception ($5, free for members of the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art) on Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m. (the exhibition opens to the general public the following day); Museum Mix, the museum’s thrice-annual art party, with a live DJ and free refreshments, on Oct. 19 from 8 to 11 p.m.; “Conversations on Muses,” a gallery tour and discussion with curator Shawnya Harris in collaboration with the UGA departments of women’s studies and African American studies, on Oct. 20 at 12:20 p.m.; a screening of the documentary “Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People” on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m.; a public tour on Nov. 1 at 2 p.m.; a Teen Studio program on Nov. 9 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. (a free program for ages 13-18 that includes a pizza dinner; email or call 706-542-0448 to reserve a spot); and an Artful Conversation on Dec. 13 at 2 p.m. Several of these programs are in conjunction with UGA’s 2017 Spotlight on the Arts festival.