Mickalene Thomas' first solo exhibition, The Center of the Universe, at the Brooklyn Museum offers multiple presentations of the African-American feminine identity. Through the combination of collage, photographs, decorated and furnished interiors, and a short documentary Thomas reveals complicated relationships with her subjects. The physical separation between the photographs and collages from the decorated interiors inhibit interaction between the two spaces but ultimately do not exclude the viewer from participating in Thomas' dialogue about African-American identity.
The references to Western art history begin before the viewer steps into the exhibition space with the show's title, an allusion to Courbet's Origin of the World (1866). The first third of the exhibition features large scale collages and photographs that Thomas worked from. Thomas' photographs are sensitive portraits that hold their own beside her glittering collages. These collages make explicit references through composition to paintings by Modernist masters such as Manet, Courbet and Matisse.
In another room are a collection of furnished interiors decorated in the 1970s American style of Thomas' childhood. These installations focus primarily on social rooms, such as the living room or den of a household where family members would gather and guests would socialize. Moving from the flashy and bright collages to the quiet interiors is awkward and initially they appear unrelated. Exploration of this confusing transition proves fruitful because Thomas' domestic interiors provide an alternative presentation of the African-American female identity when juxtaposed with the collages. Opposed to the flashy subjects that Thomas places in glamorous settings, the interiors construct quiet and livable spaces that realistically depict a 1970s American lifestyle. The final third of the exhibition presents a short film about Thomas' mother, who models in some of her larger works. The documentary creates a personal link to the interiors and collages, which I interpret as cultural rather than personal commentary. By introducing one of her muses and showing the places she grew up in the Thomas provides the viewer with an intimate portrayal of her identity.
Thomas' collages, arguably the centerpiece of Origin of the Universe, catch the viewer's eye with their bright colors and large scale. Thomas draws her audience in with a pleasurable “ah-ha!” moment of correctly identifying the reference and hopefully holds them as they contemplate the issues raised. A Little Taste Outside of Love alludes to Eduard Manet's Olympia and the art historical tradition of the reclining nude. In Olympia Manet depicted the black woman as a servant, a role in which people of African descent were mainly portrayed in throughout Western art history. Here Thomas places an African American woman front and center against a background filled with patterns and glitter. Is this a boost to the status of African American women, or a comment on the sexualization of African Americans in popular culture? Thomas is an African American lesbian, so while she is closer to the subject than Manet was, sexual desire remains a component of her depiction of women. This element of sexualization either becomes neutralized or more complicated when it is her mother posing.
As Thomas' first solo museum show, Origin of the Universe addresses the depiction of African-American women, Thomas' personal identity via her complicated relationships to her subjects and even Western art history, as the vehicle through which she makes some of her commentary. The juxtaposition of Thomas' collages with her decorated interiors raise a thoughtful question about the portrayal of African-American women versus the reality of their lives.