Mickalene Thomas Is 'All About Love'

Mickalene Thomas Is 'All About Love'

Acclaimed artist Mickalene Thomas’ debut exhibition at The Broad draws inspiration and its title from bell hooks' seminal feminist book All About Love. 


Mickalene Thomas, May 1975 Redux, 2022 © Mickalene Thomas

Almost every review on Mickalene Thomas glows with the adoration she inspired in their writer. This is equally true of the prominent author, feminist theorist, cultural critic, and social activist bell hooks. In their respective fields, both women have inspired dialogues on issues of oppression and inequality, and advocated against long standing stereotypes on Black femininity. Thomas, through mixed media, collage, photography and installation works, and hooks, through seminal works like
Salvation and, of course, All About Love. 

Published in 1999, the pivotal text confronts these issues head-on while exploring love as a process rooted in healing. The scarlet book (whose words on relationships, the nuclear family dynamic and self-love I’ve read and re-read), has become a treasured tome and bible for many Black women as well as society at large.

Encouraging readers to liberate themselves from patriarchal domination, it carves a path for mutual acceptance. With her exhibition (running from May 25th to Sept 29th), Thomas' nod to hooks illuminates the author's groundbreaking contributions to feminist theory, their shared ethos, and the liberating values and themes within her own pieces.

Born in 1971 in Camden, New Jersey, Mickalene Thomas completed her MFA from the Yale University School of Art in 2002 and a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2003. Aside from creating the first individual portrait of the former First Lady Michelle Obama in 2008, Thomas' achievements are far-reaching. I first became familiar with Thomas' work three years ago when interning for As If, the New York-based fashion and art magazine.

Thomas was Issue nº20's cover woman, and her international exhibition Beyond the Pleasure Principle at the Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery was its focus. I was asked to transcribe an interview between my former editor and Dominique Lévy, the renowned gallereist, art advisor, and the gallery's co-founder. From rewriting their conversation word for word, I learned of the artist's broad range of inspirations from vintage Jet pinup calendars and 1970s Blaxploitation films, to the Black is Beauty movement and 19th-century French painting. I left feeling deeply inspired and have followed Thomas' work ever since. 

Mickalene Thomas, A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007 © Mickalene Thomas

Similar to the Lévy Gorvy exhibition, The Broad is showcasing the artist's earliest to most recent inquiries into visual culture, sexuality, memory, and erotica. There are ambitiously immersive works such as the twelve-foot wide I’m Feelin Good (2014), and the video collage Angelitos Negros (2016). Visitors can expect a range of Thomas' large-scale paintings. Composed of silkscreen, oil and acrylic paint, they depict the powerful profiles of each African-American subject originally captured by Thomas in her photographs. 

Often mimicking poses from Western painting tradition (think of Edouard Manet and Henri Matisse), they lounge against outlandishly patterned interiors adorned with rhinestones, geometric shapes, collage and enamel. Exuding aggressive sexuality, the pieces query our understanding of beauty and identity, and the power and desirability of Black women in modern society. 

Through her enthralling works, Thomas invites us to embrace Black womanhood, while garish palettes and patterns proudly celebrate their sexuality and physicality. Some may feel disconcerted by the overt exaltation- a feeling that leads us to question our values and, inevitably, acknowledge that to love the artist's works is an active choice to make with open hearts and eyes. The idea that love is an act of will, intention and action, is key to understanding All About Love. 

“No Black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’ … No woman has ever written enough.” bell hooks. Side-note: Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, hooks took her name from her great-grandmother Bell Blair Hooks. She opted not to capitalise her name to keep the public's focus on her work.

Mickalene Thomas, This is Where I Came In, 2006 © Mickalene Thomas

In thirteen chapters, hooks' seminal book casts love as a verb rather than a noun that can bring agency to both giver and receiver. According to hooks, it's the choice to love that underpins social movements, overthrows power structures and enables one to live freely by love's graces. The text also refers to M. Scott Peck's notion that personal spiritual growth is enhanced by nurturing the spiritual growth of another person. 

Through her works, Thomas manifests this sentiment tenfold. As well as enshrining the individuality of her sitters with glistening enamel, her immersive pieces explore nuances of kinship and care, such as Lounging, Standing, Looking (2003), a painting which depicts the artist’s own mother (a recurring muse). Endowed with references to pop culture, each piece becomes both accessible and enlightening to a myriad of viewers. hooks spoke of inspiring social change through visual culture and, whether purposeful or not, Thomas is making this a reality. 

Living by "a love ethic" is central to All About Love. This is the belief that all people have a right to live self-determined and meaningful lives, and improve their wellbeing by aiding the wellbeing of others. The beauty of adopting a love ethic is that it empowers us to transcend fear, which has historically upheld patriarchal systems of control and dominance. In turn, this allows us to think liberally and overcome modes of oppression. 

The freedom derived from adhering to a love ethic is palpable in Thomas' works. In Portrait of Maya, for instance, she aligns glossy, black, white and bubble-gum pink flowers beside a scorching leopard print that adorns a bare chest. Gazing outward, Maya is breathtakingly powerful in stature and grace. She glows with the compassion and respect that Thomas has infused into her piece, as well as a self-determined love of someone who knows her value and fearlessly holds our gaze. While the contours of her facial features, arched elbows, and afro are defined with black iridescent rhinestones, she appears beautiful, nuanced, and important.

“By portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty, and background, I’m working to diversify the representations of Black women in art,” Thomas once said. 

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Maya #10, 2017 © Mickalene Thomas

In All About Love, hooks argued that in order for love to transform society, it needs to become a foundational cultural value. Its widespread acceptance in society can be stimulated by individual actions, institutional policies and media production. For her part, Thomas brings material culture into the fold; using motifs from pop culture and mass media to address questions of artifice, femininity, strength, and glamour. 

For example, the video collage of 2016’s Angelitos Negros is a touching tribute to the late singer and actress Eartha Kitt, who sang about the absence of Black angels in art history. A recurring theme in the exhibition, Thomas spotlights a burgeoning demand for Black women to be seen and understood, and for viewers to become what hooks calls “practitioners of love". In one swoop, she manifests hooks' desire to combat isolation and fear by connecting with her audience on a visual and spiritual level. Crucially, we are encouraged to foster a greater understanding of one another.

In her book Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, hooks considered the historical impact of sexism and racism on Black women, and the resulting devaluation of Black womanhood. Almost in an affront to this, Thomas' creative process is defined by her collaborations with her subjects. Taking their personalities into account, she emboldens her muses with a powerful sense of self-possession. They do not lend themselves to passive consumption, but are gatekeepers of their own agency. 

Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward, 2015 © Mickalene Thomas

Upon her death in 2021, the loss of hooks was sorely felt by feminist communities worldwide. "There is no single Black woman, cultural critic, feminist, poet, or professor among us that can carry bell hooks’s legacy alone,"wrote author Shanita Hubbard in The Guardian on the advent of her death. Indeed, community is intrinsic to hooks' lessons on love, action, healing and destabilising the patriarchy's overbearing influence on societies.

In the same breath, Hubbard quoted Dr Jenn M Jackson, a writer and professor, in saying that “Her legacy, amongst other things, shows us that our work must be rooted in a deep love for our people and an unwavering commitment to holding grace for ourselves as we struggle.” To me, it's this notion of resounding love and grace in the face of adversity that draws us to Thomas' elaborate compositions. 

Through their distinct artistic and literary works, Thomas and hooks teach us the transformative power of honesty, which starts with the self and extends to broader forces such as race, gender, and class. Using personal experiences and cultural contexts, they explore the complexities of love from a Black feminist perspective. By internalising their lessons, we understand love’s power to expand narrow-minded perspectives, and the importance of the individual experience. 

Title image. Mickalene Thomas, Resist #11: A Price to Pay, 2023 © Mickalene Thomas