Thomas first began to photograph herself and her mother as a student at Yale—a pivotal experience for her as an artist.
While working across multiple series, much of her photographic work functions as a personal act of deconstruction and reappropriation—both of images she has created herself and images she has singled out as influence. With each series, she grapples with and asserts new definitions of beauty and inspiration. Thomas’s portraits draw equally from 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women such as supermodel Beverly Johnson and actress Vonetta McGee; Édouard Manet’s odalisque figures; and the mise-en-scène studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibé, to mention a few. Perhaps of greatest importance, however, this collection of portraits and staged scenes reflects a very personal community of inspiration as well—a collection of muses that includes Thomas herself, her mother, and her friends and lovers, emphasizing the communal and social aspects of art-making and creativity that pervade her work. The accompanying Aperture publication, Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs, is the first to gather together her various approaches to photography, including portraits, collages, Polaroids, and other processes.
The idea of communities of inspiration will be further carried out via tête-à-tête, an installation of work from photographers and key images that have inspired Thomas. This will include those from older generations of artists, including Malick Sidibé and Carrie Mae Weems, to those by more contemporary artists, such as Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, and LaToya Ruby Frazier, who are part of Thomas’s generation or younger, and may in turn find inspiration in Thomas’s own practice. The artist will curate this portion of the exhibition.