Kaleidoscope, a lecture series that joins a group of Vassar professors once a semester to discuss a work of art from the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, is back after a yearlong hiatus. This semester’s discussion, Mickalene Thomas: Photographing Black Femininity, will be moderated by Professor of English Eve Dunbar, with presentations by Professor of Drama Kenisha Kelly, Professor of Film Mia Mask and Professor of Art Didier William. The group will present their analyses of Mickalene Thomas’ work Tamika sur une chaise lounge (2008), a photograph the Loeb recently acquired.
Mickalene Thomas, a renowned New York City-based artist, is known for her paintings infused with bright acrylics, enamel and rhinestones. Her representations of African American women explore perceptions of black female identity, power and sexuality. She collaborated with a recent visitor to Vassar, Solange Knowles, by creating the artwork for a special, limited edition of Knowles’ EP, True. She also created the first individual portrait of Michelle Obama and has done portraits of many other prominent black women, such as Oprah Winfrey and the late Whitney Houston.
“My work’s about looking at images of black women and reinserting them into the art historical canon. I don’t really have a choice–that’s where my work has to come from, using taste and class and the idea of femininity, because none of these things appear in art history in relation to black women,” Thomas told artist Robert Ayers in an interview. (A Sky Filled With Shooting Stars, “I think every artist would like to be a rock star: Robert Ayers in conversation with Mickalene Thomas.”) “You still don’t see them, because usually when you do see images of black women they’re in a position of servitude. So for me it’s just aligning these women with the other women who were presented in art history,” she added. Tamika sur une chaise lounge is an example of this alignment, and the photograph is in conversation with Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863).
“This painting has a lot to do with Olympia, the gaze of this female figure is so much like Manet’s Olympia, and then you have the black female figure [in the background of] Manet’s work, with the flowers, which are still there, so now the black servant has become Olympia in a way,” explained Interim Andrew W. Mellon Coordinator of Academic Affairs Anna Mecugni. Mecugni organized the event and chose Thomas’ work for the project.
The photograph depicts an African American woman reclining on a sofa in a 1970s style room, with wood paneling, bright patterns in the furniture and the woman’s clothing, and fake plants. The woman stares directly at the camera, with her blouse opened to partially reveal her breasts.
Mecugni spoke to the societal implications the artwork addresses. which will be further explored at the event. “These are major issues in contemporary society and it’s important for everyone to think about them together, so how is race and gender represented and what do we do with that, how do we perceive it and how do we discuss it, and what does it mean to have a semi-naked black female figure in a sensual pose?” explained Mecugni.
The work, according to Mecugni, brings to the surface questions surrounding societal perceptions of black female sexuality. “I think this is one of the main questions this work poses: is this work endorsing or criticizing, or inserting this criticality in the idea of the overly-sexualized black female body?” she stated.
Furthermore, Mecugni explained that Thomas’ work is also in conversation with the Blaxploitation film genre of the 1970s, evidenced by the ’70s clothing and interior decoration in the picture. The panel plans to discuss Blaxploitation in relation to the work.
“There’s one [film] titled Coffy that’s incredible. It features a really sexy, self-assertive and powerful female as the main character,” said Mecugni. Mecugni stated that she sees elements of the film’s protagonist in the photograph. “That expression—she is very much there. She’s almost confrontational,” said Mecugni. “There’s something self-assertive here that is key, I think. It helps us think through the way we present ourselves, and what is identity.”
Mecugni emphasized that this dialogue is particularly geared for Vassar students. “We really want to have a lot of dialogue with the audience in contribution to the panel, really a discussion, and to hear from the audience. We really hope to get a lot of students to engage in the conversation,” she stated.
The discussion will be held in Taylor Hall 203 on Thursday, Nov. 21 at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center that will feature a 1970s-inspired soul, R&B and funk soundtrack.