Life and death, mother and daughter, artist and muse—these binaries are the thematic life source that flows through the veins of Mickalene Thomas' new show, "I was born to do great things." Open until Nov. 15 at Chicago's Kavi Gupta, the exhibition explores the unbreakable relationships between these natural cycles through a single subject, Thomas' recently deceased mother, Sandra Bush.
Thomas is known for her portraits, which mostly feature striking and aggressively independent black women surrounded by bright, patterned fabrics. She typically brings elements of craft art into her creations, including glitter and sequins, elevating these historically feminized materials. This technique is apparent in Thomas' EP cover art for Solange's True, which relies on photography, collage, and rich patterns and textures. For her new show, however, Thomas has created an entirely different kind of portrait.
Moving away from the flat surface of a painting or photograph, Thomas has filled Kavi Gupta's exhibition space with her mother's personal belongings. She cast many of them in bronze, which simultaneously destroyed the original objects, again playing with the concept of life and death (or creation and destruction). In addition, Thomas created a film about her mother called Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, which is, like the whole exhibition, a celebration of her mother. Through this show, Sandra Bush moves from mother to muse, and Thomas from daughter to artist. In a way, their roles have been reversed (or have come full circle); through Thomas' work, and the viewers' experience of it, her mother is born anew.
We got a change to talk to Thomas on the phone while she was installing "I was born to do great things." Check out our interview with her below.
How did you come up with this idea of creating a portrait of someone through physical objects instead of on a flat surface?
I wanted to work with a material that celebrated the idea of memorializing someone. Historically thinking about what material in the world does that, bronze came to mind.
Why did you choose bronze?
Thinking historically in reference to art making, bronze traditionally is used as the material to memorialize someone, like in sculpture. For me, it was just a direct way of using this very traditional material to memorialize someone that was a subject of my work.
In your other work, you use more untraditional materials like glitter and rhinestones, stuff you wouldn’t normally see in paintings. What was it like to switch from these materials to something that’s much more traditional and grounded in art history?
It's not that the materials I use are untraditional, they're just materials that are known in the world a little more on the peripheral, and they’ve been used throughout art history for many years. Paint is something that is fabricated—it’s made—and we use it. So, we're already using a fabrication from the beginning, and how we use it is in a way like assemblage. We’ve already been working conceptually with these materials that are untraditional, in a sense.
I was interested in using glitter, rhinestones, and these craft materials that are usually on the peripheral, or are known as a low art, and bringing them into a high art notion because those materials were used mainly by women and outsider artists. It’s like pulling them and linking them to a traditional way, so it wasn’t necessarily that far of a stretch for me to vacillate between the two worlds because I still feel that there is a very strong connection within both of those worlds. It’s just more finding the thread that connects the two.
I worked in reverse, deciding to use the traditional materials that we know historically and trying to take that material and conceptualize it in my own way and fabricate it into icons and elements and objects that were somewhat personal but also objects that are familiar to everyone as readymades—whether they’re at a Salvation Army, Goodwill, a second hand store, from someone’s death, or from cleaning up your own closets.
Also what happens in the casting process that I’m interested is that those objects are destroyed. But during that process, they’re destroyed and they're transcended into a new life, and they live on. There’s that sense of transformation of life.
You were talking about how the objects had to be destroyed. Was that at all difficult for you because they were your mother’s belongings?
No, I think that was a very cathartic feeling for me. I’m not interested in holding on to things that have a memory in that sense. This [exhibition] gives the memory a more spiritual gift to the world, in a sense that I can never give it.
I never had the intention to hold on to these things as a memory of my mother. I feel like I have my own memories of my mother that I keep for myself because, and I’ve had this relationship with her publicly in the art world. I was really trying to find the next phase in that relationship, not necessarily as a mother and daughter but as an artist and muse.
Do you feel like these objects have a new sense of power?
Oh absolutely, I think the power is given by the viewer. Although they may have a set of meanings for me, I'm interested the relationship the viewer has to them, and hopefully the viewer can step outside the idea of knowing that these are objects from my mother. Because when they see them, they will recognize them as their own objects and bring their own notion of familiarity to them because of what the objects are and not where they come from.
How were you able to synthesize your mother's identity into an exhibition?
She already tells her own story and her narrative through the film, and the film acts as the entryway into how the viewer sees the work. You walk into the space, and there’s this very romantic notion about life and death, that there’s no separation between the two.
The text pieces, I was born to do great things, Make sure to allow people to take care of you, and The magic of believing, these are affirmations, which my mother used in her own home, that anyone can take and apply to themselves and their own life. These notions of how to get through the next day are sort of inspirations. It’s more about an extension of a story but also a way for the viewers to engage with the objects on their own terms.
Could you talk to me a little bit more about the film? Do you see it as a celebration?
The film embodies my mother's story, whether you know that this person that I used in my paintings and photographs was my mother. There’s a different layer to who these people are. They are real people, not fictitious subjects, like if we were to discover some of the muses of Manet or Matisse or Courbet—who are these people? Where do they come from? They have a history, and I’m interested in that residue or layer of someone’s past defining who they are.
Because of that, when I made this documentary, it was definitely a celebration of my mother and her own journey but also a way for the viewer to experience and see how, through my art, my mother achieved her own accomplishments, her dream. By being my muse she’s become the person she’s always wanted to be. That was something that was revealed throughout the making of the film. Regardless of her own trials and tribulations, she was an individual that has succeed and overcome those things she wanted in her life without even knowing it through the art of her daughter, which to me is a very powerful thing. It’s like a celebration of her personal history, of womanhood, of motherhood, and I guess, just basically, the power of art itself.
In your previous work, you portrayed these very strong, independent women in your portraits. How does this very different kind of portrait of your mother fit into the body of work you’ve already created?
It’s just a different presentation. Conceptually, it comes from the same place. The reason why it was not necessarily a struggle to work from one medium to the next is that the underlying idea, whether I’m doing my paintings or photographs, was the same thread through this body of work. It’s not loosing sight of what my goals are and what I’m putting out there as images for the world. It's the same notion of reflecting on the ideals of beauty and the framework around that.
All of these things that I chose to put in the show are objects of desire, and even the text paintings are objects of desire. To have a quote that says “I was born to do great things,” whether you achieve it or not, that’s an object or a notion of desire. So it works within the same way whether I’m doing portraits of the other women, which are my friends.
Because you are considering objects of desire, which can become problematic or sinister, do you think there’s a dark side to this exhibition?
Oh yeah, these objects are very ghostlike: the color of them, they're a little worn, and you know that they’ve been used. They’ve been cast in a state that they last existed, so you know there was a form of life there, which is very ephemeral. It’s like an embodiment of the spirit of someone else, which can be very exciting or very dark and scary and uncanny. This person no longer exists, this person is no longer here, they’re dead, but then their spirit in their artifacts live on.
Its like if you look through our history, if you go to the Met or a museum and go to the Egyptians section, or the African section, or check out Greek mythology, these are objects that have a history to them, and some of them are a little morbid and have a spirit or energy to them because you know that they have this history. Something that’s mummified or cast, these are objects that were developed by a particular group of people at a particular time. These bronze sculptures that I’m presenting are sort of like totems.