Cameron Granger on Mickalene Thomas, mothers, and being seen

Cameron Granger

Nov 26, 2018

Image of Sandra "Mama" Bush, mother of contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas, from the HBO documentary film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman

Like Mickalene Thomas, Columbus filmmaker and video artist Cameron Granger has drawn inspiration from his relationship with his mother, Sandra, and he's collaborated with her on a body of artwork. Back in town after spending the early fall on gallery shows in Oakland and Philadelphia, Granger paid us a visit recently for a viewing of I Can't See You Without Me. Here's his heartfelt response.

There’s this thing that happens when you first enter the galleries for Mickalene’s show. I Can’t See You Without Me opens with the artist’s mother. It’s an image composed of several images, vibrant paintings of Sandra Bush doing her best Pam Grier. Adorned in rhinestones and enamel, Mickalene rather us refer to her mother as Mama Bush. Listen though, this opening image, striking as it may be, is not the "thing" that I’m speaking of. 

No, if you’re like me, and you enter the galleries when its just quiet enough, you’ll hear a voice, a voice that sounds like brown sugar over the top of a tray of yams. I mean, you’ll hear a voice that sounds familiar in a way that can’t be true. No, this voice belongs to Mama Bush, and you know that even as you walk across the space, into the dark room where her face, whose creases around her mouth and eyes look so much like the creases around your grandmother’s mouth and eyes, that this voice is not the voice that you’re longing for it to be.

I watch Mama Bush for some time. And for a moment, I imagine that she is watching me, too.

An installation shot of artwork by Mickalene Thomas, inspired by her mother Sandra "Mama" Bush, as seen in the Wexner Center for the Arts Fall 2018 exhibition Mickalene Thomas: I Can't See You Without Me

Hundreds of miles and a handful of years away from where I am now, I’m 12 years old, lying beside my mother on her bed. We would often hold court like this, sometimes watching any and every cartoon, other times watching any and every reality show. The TV was off this time, though, and the only real sound came from her ceiling fan, which would squeak just a tiny bit between every breath either one of us would take.

“What do you think of Byron?”

My mother didn’t really date, at least not from what I could see at the time. She rarely let men into our home, and when she did, I knew it was serious, even as young as I was. Byron had been coming around a lot now. I liked him. He had a Playstation 2, a loud laugh, and very big shoes.  

“He’s cool ... I guess.”

I guess my mother was being unusually hesitant tonight with her words. I guess I never noticed. 

“How would you feel if he was your new dad?”

I think this is where I tell you that my heart dropped, and tears began running down my face like a switch had just been flipped, and I couldn’t bring myself to say a single word in the wake of it all, and I think my mother cried too, but that I can’t seem to remember it. 

What I do remember is leaving my mother’s room, and how on the way to my room, I saw Byron’s shoes, on the floor, at the foot of our couch, waiting for his return.

An installation shot of artwork by Mickalene Thomas, inspired by her mother Sandra "Mama" Bush, as seen in the Wexner Center for the Arts Fall 2018 exhibition Mickalene Thomas: I Can't See You Without Me

Not far from the video of Mama Bush that beckoned me inward, a pair of black heels lie atop a small rug, draped over a lush blue carpet. A smaller scene inside of a larger one, contained by a living room. I imagine the owner slipping them off after a long day at work, or kicking them to the side right before running into their lover’s arms after dreaming all day about doing just that.

Throughout the show Mickalene creates these tableaus from the spaces that have helped shape her. Her mother’s home, a living space shared with an old partner, we all have spaces like these carved into the corners of our own memory. I look at Mickalene’s own memories made physical through these works, and I begin to recall my own. 

I wonder if that’s what she wanted. 

"Mama Bush (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher)", a collaged portrait of artist Mickalene Thomas's mother in black formal attire on patterned backgrounds

This is the part where I should speak on the subjects of Mickalene’s works beyond her mother, various Black, often Queer women that have come in and out of her life, and how the way in which she positions them within the work draws from and subverts a long, Eurocentric history that often (i.e. always) finds them on the margins, and how Mickalene making this work on the level that she is, is in itself a radical act.

I see these works though, and think of how I watch them, watching me, and how their gaze shoots out from the painting and wraps around the gallery, and then around me too in a way that yes, can maybe feel confrontational if it’s one that you aren’t used to, but one that for me feels much more familiar.

I guess I’m thinking of the time I first came home after I first left home, and how tightly my mother wrapped her arms around me when I walked through the door. I’m thinking about the way she looked at me in that moment. It was an affirming gaze, one that made me feel seen in a way that I hadn’t in a very long time. And maybe it was the gaze that she always looked upon me with, but I was too close to notice before.

The eyes in Mickalene’s work do something similar I think. Eyes that say, “Yes, I see you, now it’s time for you to see me.” I look at these works and not only see the Black women in the painting before me, but all of the Black women who, like them, have given me the gift of their sight.

Oh what a gift it is to be seen.



Images: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, 2012 (still). Digital video, 23:06 mins. Courtesy of the artist © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Installation images of the Wexner Center exhibition; Mickalene Thomas, Mama Bush (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, 2009. Rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, 82 x 72 in. Private collection © Mickalene Thomas / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York