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Catching up with Mickalene Thomas at the Dayton Art Institute

Brea Berry

Wed, Jan 02, 2019

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If you loved Mickalene Thomas: I Can's See You Without Me, take the opportunity this month to see more of the artist's work in Ohio. Here's Brea Berry, a work-study student at the Wex, with her perspective on the Thomas exhibitions on view through January 13 at the Dayton Art Institute: MUSE: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-á-tête.

Brea is in her fifth year at Ohio State, majoring in art education and minoring in youth development, and will graduate in the spring. The Youngstown, Ohio native has a lifelong passion for art and loves sharing it with students of all ages in her work supporting the Wex Education team.

Photo of Brea Berry, a work-study student in Education at the Wexner Center for the Arts

This is my fourth year as a work-study student at the Wexner Center for the Arts in the Education department. I have experienced a variety of exhibits and seen how each one has its own personality and how different people connect to them. Here at the Wexner Center, both the artist and the art open doors to a worldly journey.

Mickalene Thomas is known for her dazzling portraits of people in her life, including herself, portrayed in historically known poses. In her texturally rich paintings, Thomas examines the popular characterization of black female identity, celebrity, and sexuality. Crafted with acrylic, rhinestones, and enamel, the vibrant interwoven patterns are inspired by her childhood in the 1970s.

Mickalene Thomas: I Can’t See You Without Me, put emphasis on a few of Mickalene’s muses individually and exposed viewers to the beauty in each and every one of them. I Can’t See You Without Me featured a lot of large-scale works and included elements of sound, videos, music, and interactive qualities to replicate the atmosphere for her models as they are posed in the tableaux she creates in her studio.

This past fall, a group of Wex docents and staff went to the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) to view Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête. The overall experience of seeing more of her work was great, and how the DAI chose to present her was very unique. The docents had a great time walking through the exhibit. I overheard some intriguing comments, such as an appreciation of how Thomas's mother, Mama Bush, was depicted in all of her beauty and her sickness as she was dying.

The scale of the work was also a new aspect. Many of the works we showed at the Wex are a lot larger than the ones at the DAI and the smaller size gave off a totally new vibe. Her work is so vulnerable, both in presentation and representation. Everything from the music to the personae, to the references to art history, claims the space as hers and ours. Being an African American woman in a world where I finally can walk through a museum and see myself depicted in so many ways gives me such a positive perspective on my future. My blackness is no longer a stereotype but a work of art that represents beauty and belonging.  

An installation of photographs in the Mickalene Thomas-curated exhibition tête-á-tête at the Dayton Art Institute

The companion show to Muse, tête-à-tête, includes works from other artists such as Renée Cox and Carrie Mae Weems that send messages similar to Mickalene’s work, and show us the reasons why we need these. Mickalene not only focuses on race and sexuality but also gender. The female empowerment of being able to take back our sexual gaze brings a feeling of strength and confidence. 

As you enter into the space, you walk down a corridor towards one of her pieces, Portrait of Qusuquzah (2008), presented on a black wall. The spotlight sinks you into her gaze and body. Seductive and satisfying in her regal being, she invites you to see a collection of muses in whole new light.

An installation shot of Portrait of Qusuquzah by artist Mickalene Thomas at the Dayton Art Institute

The trip overall was amazing. Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs and tête-à-tête are must-see exhibits!