Rigorous
Volume One, Issue 3



Black Femme Lesbian Identities in the Paintings & Photography of Mickalene Thomas

Aaminah Shakur


Mickalene Thomas’ body of work is recognized for depictions of Black women’s sensuality and beauty. Drawing from her own memories growing up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s, using friends, family members, and lovers as models, Thomas creates mostly mixed-media paintings celebrating Black womanhood and sisterhood. Thomas works through the familiar framework of canonical paintings, reimagining them within a Black female context, while introducing clever, but often obscure and personal, references to pop culture. For the purpose of this paper, I will look at how Thomas complicates the canon by replacing the traditional white nude modeling of racially ambiguous “Eastern” odalisques in Orientalist paintings with Black women in a way that subverts the male colonialist gaze upon “the Other,” and simultaneously challenges the also hypersexualized motif of the Black Venus Hottentot. In this intentional corruption of the canonical tradition and investigation into the colonized Black female body, Thomas creates a queer Black aesthetic that centralizes women and lesbian identity.

The genre of Orientalist and odalisque paintings served as a method by which white (predominantly European) people could express their fascination with non-white women of the “East”. Mockery and criticism of racialized bodies, along with a sense of Western moral superiority around sexuality, was wrapped up with acknowledgement of their attraction to these women. The racially ambiguous women of the paintings were portrayed and interpreted as prostitutes or “harem girls,” essentially existing in one way or another as slaves or servants, offering the white audience a sense of ownership or right to view them and discuss them at length, both publicly and privately.1 The Venus Hottentot, in particular, exists as a means of colonial sexualizing combined with a claim of the bestiality of Black women, and remains a potent trope in contemporary society.2 Drawing on the history imagery and live women in ethnology museums and “human zoos,” Black women have been denied and shamed for their womanhood, femininity, and sexuality and continue to be in contemporary times.3 Lesbians have often been discouraged from playing up femininity, instead embracing a masculine presentation in order to survive in a heterosexist world, and sometimes as an explicit anti-beauty/anti-patriarchy stance.4 How this has played out for Black lesbians is complicated not only by aesthetics of sexuality but also race, and has led to the “stud” phenomenon being the most prominent depiction in media of Black women’s queerness, whether this is accurate to real life or not.5 Femme lesbians have always existed, but due to the demand to hide their sexuality (whether heterosexual or queer) and assumptions of heterosexuality placed upon Black women who did not overtly embody queer (read: stud) aesthetics, they have often been erased from discourse and representation. Thomas’ paintings represent femme Black women with power around their own sexual agency and who form unapologetic friendships and romantic/sexual bonds of intimacy with each other. By analyzing four of Thomas’ artworks ranging from 2006 to 2011, I will show how Thomas is reinterpreting a unique Black feminine queerness that both centers a specifically Black female gaze rather than the colonizing white gaze or male gaze as a whole, and also puts forth a feminine beauty and sexuality, a femme identity, that is often erased and denied to Black women, particularly queer Black women.

Christopher S. Lewis, a scholar of Black and Queer literature, has written about a concept he calls “Black lesbian shamelessness” which he defines as “celebration of the fact that same-sex relationships sustain and nurture the lives of countless black women” that represents “acceptance of vulnerability and mutual dependence as fundamental conditions of human relationships.”6 Lewis was writing about the work of lesbian writers of the ’70s and ’80s (with particular emphasis on Alice Walker), the very time period that inspires the aesthetics of Thomas’ work and also helped to form Thomas’ articulation of relationships between Black women. If, as Lewis suggests, writers like Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, and Walker were reimagining the place of Black lesbian relationships in the context of/following Black pride movements, perhaps Thomas’ work is the visual continuation of their legacy. As a visual artist who grew up witnessing the work of these foremothers of the Black lesbian literary tradition, Thomas is bringing that same shamelessness into the visual world of painting and photography. Thomas emphasizes sisterhood, friendship, and unapologetic sexuality between Black women,7 building upon the combination of shameless exploitation of the female body by historical male artists, the example set forward by Black lesbian writers, and her lived experience in the women-centered childhood from which her own sexuality bloomed. Thomas is creating art for Black women, rather than for a white gaze or male gaze, while cleverly critiquing the ongoing Orientalist and exoticizing traditions.

Not all of Thomas’ work is explicitly sexual or incorporates nudes. Works such as Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires (2010) show fully clothed women enjoying each other’s company as friends and tackle the issue of shadeism8 within definitions of Black beauty. Her goal throughout her body of work is to create a femme-centered beauty culture that embraces and celebrates feminine beauty as a legitimate expression for queer Black women of their gender and sexuality. In discussing her 2005 painting, Hotter Than July, Derek Conrad Murray, an interdisciplinary theorist who considers contemporary art around the issues of identity and representation, has written,

“Works such as this one are not concerned with chastising the objectifying manner in which men look at women; rather, they are more explicitly concerned with the black female gaze (empowered female looking). Hotter than July takes on many of the stylistic tropes of heteronormative sex images and rearticulates them through a distinctly queer-feminist desiring lens. The queering, however, is also a means of rendering the black body strange: of giving it a signifying potential that allows the possibility for new meaning to be constructed.”9

Tell Her It’s Over (2006) and A Little Taste Outside of Love (2007) are both large scale paintings in which Thomas utilizes the collage-like imagery and rhinestones she is best known for, but they each feature a singular nude Black woman in the center. Both titles are taken from Millie Jackson songs (from 1975 and 1977), and the paintings can be interpreted within the stories told in those songs, but can be complicated further as well.

Tell Her It’s Over offers two possible explanations. The title implies the woman in the painting is the “wife” making the demand, following an intimate encounter. It is also just as possible the woman represents the live-in girlfriend he is breaking up with, either waiting for him to arrive home to her and unaware he is coming with that intent, or sitting there after he has announced his departure (perhaps watching him pack his things). However, there is no implication in the painting that the partner “off camera” is male, and in keeping with Thomas’ work it is more likely to be a woman. In either case, it is the woman in the center who we focus on, and empathize with. She is “the discarded woman” - the one previously discarded who believes her partner is now returning, or the one being discarded as the partner returns to a previous love. In a sense, she is every woman then, conflating the two (or perhaps more, as they may be part of a pattern) in their shared experience. As Thomas looks intently at sisterhood and friendship throughout her body of work, the intimate reality of the shared experience of being left for another woman is acknowledged. Tell Her represents the Black woman as an odalisque, or as a modified Venus, but presents her on her own terms. She isn’t titillating or beckoning to the male gaze, nor even directly asserting herself for that attention. Instead there is a sense of introspection and a more vulnerable or comfortable sexuality.

The woman in A Little Taste Outside of Love more obviously pulls from the historical tradition. Her position lounging on the bedding mirrors Ingres’ La Grand Odalisque (1814), and she looks directly at the viewer. As a part of the grand odalisque tradition, the title of the painting also cleverly riffs on Millie Jackson’s 1977 song A Little Taste of Outside Love, while inverting the words “of” and “outside”. The song is about a woman who comes home to find her man has had another woman in her own house. She proceeds to kick him out of her home and life. The chorus of the song says, “A little taste of outside love has blown your whole thing,” with “outside love” referring to the affair, or bringing in another woman from outside. With the inversion of the title, Thomas may be addressing the odalisque as the “outside love,” but also names the sex without love inherent in going to a prostitute.

This is an example of Thomas placing a Black woman in the position that complicates the historical painting’s reservation of that space for white women, or for the perception of the “Eastern”/Turkish/”Other” woman. When Black women did appear in the historical genre paintings, they were more frequently depicted as “the help” rather than the central figure of interest.10 The Black woman as “Other” in a contemporary sense relates to the hypersexualization of the “Eastern Other” of the odalisque, assumed prostitute or “harem girl”, of Orientalist paintings. At the same time, there is a sense of independence and agency in this painting that is missing in the fantasy woman presented in historical paintings. The woman here seems more at ease and positioned for her own comfort, rather than posed to titillate any man. Her body seems to sink into the cushions, she isn’t arching her back for optimum thrust of buttocks or breasts, and she lacks the suggestiveness of the fan in Ingres’ Odalisque. Further, her body is not idealized, she simply is, a realistic image of a Black woman in repose. Her sexual self is displayed, but not on display.

Another direct take on a historical genre painting, Courbet 3 (2011) features women in the center who are dark brown in a sea of fabrics that are piled on the bed and draped across the wall in such a way as to resemble Thomas’ collage paintings. Mirroring Gustave Courbet’s Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), the photograph once again plays with the odalisque tradition and its homoerotic overtones, but switches out the (presumably) white women posed to entice the male gaze with the darkest Black women who are photographed in a far more artful way than mere eroticism. The sexual aspect is not downplayed, and Thomas is not ashamed to show it, but they appear softer and far more sensual than explicitly sexually engaged. They represent both queer love and sexuality, and a space that is in no way concerned with men. They are not posed to entice, but merely exist in the natural loving way of two women who have a romantic and/or sexual ease with one another in their own space. Much like in A Little Taste Outside of Love, the telltale signs of male enticement are lacking in Courbet 3 – arched backs, pushing the buttocks and breasts out in exaggerated ways, and demure faces. Instead there is simple nudity, the aesthetically attractive curves of natural body forms, and the contrasts of light and dark colors in which they are situated.

Throughout her body of work, Thomas produces an opportunity for Black women, and Black queer women in particular, to see themselves represented through contemporary art that mirrors their own perceptions of their beauty back to them and celebrates it. Women can safely look at these paintings, can recognize it is meant for them, and can internalize that their own beauty is also for themselves and who they choose to share it with. Although men may choose to look at and objectify Thomas’ subjects no differently than they ever have historically, this art isn’t about them. From subtle pose changes to the direct challenging gazes of the figures in Thomas’ work, it is clear they are not trying to attract male attention.

The imagery in Thomas’ work represents everyday Black women. This is in part because her models are everyday Black women in her life,11 but it is also her choice to depict them without exaggeration. They are soft bodies with rolls and creases, comfortably posed, and profoundly human. Utilizing familiar canonical frameworks to slip Black women into the picture is something done by other artists as well (Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, and even Ward Kimball), but Thomas takes it to a different level with her high-femme articulations of gender, and explicitly queer/lesbian sexuality. These works create an aesthetic that celebrates complex queer Black womanhood.



1 Julia Kuehn. "Exotic Harem Paintings: Gender, Documentation, and Imagination." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 32, no. 2 (2011): 31-63. doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.32.2.0031. P 32.

2 Debra S. Singer. “Reclaiming Venus: The Presence of Sarah Bartmann in Contemporary Art.” In Black Venus, 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot”, 87-95. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010.

3 Jennifer DeClue. “Let’s Play: Exploring Cinematic Black Lesbian Fantasy, Pleasure, and Pain.” In No Tea, No Shade: New Writings In Black Queer Studies, 216-38 (P. 219). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

4 Jodi R. Schorb, and Tania N. Hammidi. "Sho-Lo Showdown: The Do's and Don'ts of Lesbian Chic." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 19, no. 2 (2000): 255-68. doi:10.2307/464429.

5 For some examples in media see Ricky in Lackawanna Blues (2005), Cheryl in Watermelon Woman (1997), and Alike in Pariah (2011).

6 Christopher S. Lewis. "Cultivating Black Lesbian Shamelessness: Alice Walker's The Color Purple" Rocky Mountain Review 66, no. 2 (2012): 158-75 (P. 159.). http://www.jstor.org/stable/41763555.

7 Olivia Parkes. "Artist Mickalene Thomas Is Bringing Black Women into the Canon." Broadly. August 5, 2016. Accessed January 21, 2017. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mickalene-thomas-interview?utm_source=broadlytwitterus.

8 Joni Hersch. "Skin-Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality." The American Economic Review 96, no. 2 (2006): 251-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30034652.

9 Derek Conrad Murray. "Mickalene Thomas: Afro-Kitsch & the Queering of Blackness." American Art Journal, 9-15. P 11.

10 See Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1865), Henri Pierre Picou’s Odalisque (1858), and Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834)

11 Julia Felsenthal. "Mickalene Thomas on Her Photographic Muses." Vogue. February 01, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017. http://www.vogue.com/article/mickalene-thomas-muse-aperture.



Bibliography

DeClue, Jennifer. “Let’s Play: Exploring Cinematic Black Lesbian Fantasy, Pleasure, and Pain.” In No Tea, No Shade: New Writings In Black Queer Studies, 216-38. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Felsenthal, Julia. "Mickalene Thomas on Her Photographic Muses." Vogue. February 01, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017. http://www.vogue.com/article/mickalene-thomas-muse-aperture.

Goldsmith, Arthur H., Darrick Hamilton, and William Darity. "From Dark to Light: Skin Color and Wages among African-Americans." The Journal of Human Resources 42, no. 4 (2007): 701-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40057327.

Harris, Laura Alexandra. "Queer Black Feminism: The Pleasure Principle." Feminist Review, no. 54 (1996): 3-30. doi:10.2307/1395608.

Hersch, Joni. "Skin-Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality." The American Economic Review 96, no. 2 (2006): 251-55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30034652.

Ibel, Rebecca, and Greer Pagano. US IS THEM. September 18, 2015. Exhibition Catalog, Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH.

Kuehn, Julia. "Exotic Harem Paintings: Gender, Documentation, and Imagination." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 32, no. 2 (2011): 31-63. doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.32.2.0031.

Lewis, Christopher S. "Cultivating Black Lesbian Shamelessness: Alice Walker's The Color Purple" Rocky Mountain Review 66, no. 2 (2012): 158-75.

Murray, Derek Conrad. "Mickalene Thomas: Afro-Kitsch & the Queering of Blackness." American Art Journal, 9-15. http://mickalenethomas.com/press_pdfs/2014/01_AmericanArt_14_DerekConradMurray.pdf?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Parkes, Olivia. "Artist Mickalene Thomas Is Bringing Black Women into the Canon." Broadly. August 5, 2016. Accessed January 21, 2017. https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mickalene-thomas-interview?utm_source=broadlytwitterus.

Reckitt, Helena, and Peggy Phelan. Art and Feminism. London: Phaidon, 2012.

Schorb, Jodi R., and Tania N. Hammidi. "Sho-Lo Showdown: The Do's and Don'ts of Lesbian Chic." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 19, no. 2 (2000): 255-68. doi:10.2307/464429.

Semmel, Joan, and April Kingsley. "Sexual Imagery in Women's Art." Woman's Art Journal 1, no. 1 (1980): 1-6. doi:10.2307/1358010.

Singer, Debra S. “Reclaiming Venus: The Presence of Sarah Bartmann in Contemporary Art.” In Black Venus, 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot”, 87-95. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010.


Aaminah Shakur: "I am a Queer Crip Indigenous/Black artist, poet, art historian, culture critic, and Senior Poetry Editor at Open Thought Vortex Magazine. I have contributed writing about art to Hyperallergic, H.A.C.K., and Patheos Public Square. My website is http://aaminahshakur.com."




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