Covered in glittering rhinestones, Mickalene Thomas’ solo exhibit “Origin of the Universe” at the Brooklyn Museum demands attention. The collection of paintings share collage-like compositions combining elements such as stylized African American female nudes, landscapes, and living room furniture and decor popular during Thomas’ childhood in the 1970’s. The show continues into a room beyond the paintings, where a central installation echos the furnished room scenes in some of the paintings. It is constructed so that the viewer sees one of four corners decorated as living rooms as s/he moves around the installation. A dark niche connected to this room displays the final piece of the exhibit: a touching documentary about the life of Thomas’ mother, and her presence in her daughter’s artwork. Throughout the artwork in the exhibit are overarching concepts of sexuality, empowerment of African American women, and art as a constructed representation.
Many of the mural sized paintings in the exhibit depict African American women arranged in compositions that emulate well known paintings from the nineteenth century, challenging the historical portrayals of the female nude as white. A painting referencing a work of Courbet’s, and the inspiration for the title of the exhibit, “L’Origine du Monde,” depicts the genitals and lower torso of a female nude. Thomas transforms the meaning of the piece by depicting the subject as an African American female, and by using rhinestones as the medium.
The segmented “living room” installations in the show mimic the same home environments represented in Thomas’ paintings. Zebra print sofas, low coffee tables, and brightly colored and patterned decor offer four different settings. One display plays motown music, adding to the ambiance of the era specific spaces. Another has a mirror that reflects the image of the viewer, reflecting his/her image in the space itself.
The documentary “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” is a moving addition. In it, Thomas asks her mother to discuss aspects of her life including her childhood, marriage, divorce, motherhood, and drug addiction. The viewer learns that her mother’s background in modeling, and her feelings about physical beauty and sexuality strongly impact Thomas‘ work. Images of Thomas’ mother are often featured in Thomas’ collages and paintings.
This personal, multi-media exploration challenges traditional images of beauty in art by quoting historically well known paintings in the new context of racial identity, by celebrating female sexuality, and by incorporating images and memories from her childhood experience.