Art review: Influential black women the focus of solo show at Spelman

It’s hard to think of a more opportune time than the present to experience Mickalene Thomas’ solo exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, “Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities.”

With the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork trending and race at the center of so many national conversations, this show foregrounding the beauty, creativity, pathos and defiance of black women is a must-see.

RELATED: Life with Gracie: What’s it like being a #blackwomanatwork?

While popular culture can often shape how women are perceived in the negative, many of the women featured in “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” reveal the positive dimensions to celebrity.

The show’s focal point is a two-channel video projection featured prominently at the gallery entrance, a kind of patchwork quilt of video clips featuring female comedians, dancers and singers. That piece, “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers),” is a Greatest Hits of Black Womanhood, featuring performances — Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Wanda Sykes, Whitney Houston — that pop up at various times on the gallery wall. In songs, comedy routines and dance numbers, these video clips create a rich tapestry of what it means to be a black woman. As one voice fades, another takes its place, hinting at the interconnectedness and influence of these women.

Their performances are inspiring, hilarious, willful, even shocking, and “Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” gives them back the autonomy and power the culture at large so often strips away. In a series of newer silkscreens with mirrored elements — to also encourage viewers to see themselves in the work — Thomas homes in on the stars of the 1985 film “The Color Purple,” an influential film in the artist’s life.

The exhibition operates on two frequencies: cozy and cacophonous.

On one hand, there are the comfortable hangouts Thomas has created in the gallery space; mock living rooms with rugs onto which patterned pillows and ottomans and plants have been placed, giving a distinctive consciousness-raising, let-your-hair-down, Seventies vibe. Visitors are encouraged to sit in these ersatz living rooms to watch the installation videos on view, or read one of the many female-centric books stacked on the rug: “Beloved,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Jazz,” “The Color Purple.” While galleries and museums can often be intimidating spaces for viewers that they are encouraged to move decisively through, Thomas’ welcoming ambiance invites her audience to sit and stay awhile.

Like so much of Thomas’ video work, which unfolds on multiple screens, her living rooms are collages: of texture, of pattern, of ideas. Collage is central to Thomas’ vision, as an expression of the scattered, patchwork consciousness of our 21st-century brains, but also an acknowledgment of the many voices and ideas coming together to form a culture and identity.

On the cacophonous end of the spectrum are the videos themselves, booming, bouncing off the walls, their soundtracks often bleeding into other areas of the gallery space. With the gallery’s dim lighting and the constantly changing visuals, the effect can be slightly disorienting, overwhelming, as in the close-up images of four women, including Eartha Kitt, singing “Angelitos Negros,” a video which Thomas dramatically edits, focusing in on the eyes and mouths of the singers, as if striving for even more intimacy and connection.

Like a teenager’s bedroom plastered with beloved heroes, this exhibition is a reminder of how definitive, how emotional our relationship to pop culture can be: We see ourselves in it, and shape our own identities through it.


“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities”

Through May 20. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. $3 suggested donation. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 440 Westview Drive S.W., Atlanta. 404-270-5607,

Bottom line: This inspiring exhibition centered on influential black women benefits from its topicality.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Living

‘Take Every Wave’ looks at life, work ethic of surfing star
‘Take Every Wave’ looks at life, work ethic of surfing star

It takes a lot of work to be a surf bum. “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton,” the latest documentary from Rory Kennedy (“Last Days in Vietnam”), is partly the life story of Hamilton, widely considered the world’s best big-wave surfer, and partly a study in obsession. Kennedy bounces back and forth between times...
Biopic remains superficial tearjerker
Biopic remains superficial tearjerker

“Breathe” is meant, no doubt, as a sincere homage to the late disability advocate Robin Cavendish, who died, after living with polio for 36 years, in 1994. Commissioned by his son, producer Jonathan Cavendish — who plays a minor role in the film — and directed by Jonathan Cavendish’s business partner, actor Andy Serkis...
‘Only the Brave’ is gripping story of firefighting heroes
‘Only the Brave’ is gripping story of firefighting heroes

Wildland firefighting is a mysterious art: a delicate dance with a raging, unpredictable force. It’s bested only with a unique mastery of weather, fuel and wind to extinguish fire with fire itself. If our image of firefighting is a big red truck and a hose, “Only the Brave,” directed by Joseph Kosinski, tweaks that image, introducing...
Canada heartbroken: Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie dead at 53 of brain cancer 
Canada heartbroken: Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie dead at 53 of brain cancer 

The lead singer of the Canadian alt-rock band the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, died Wednesday night after a battle with terminal brain cancer. Downie, 53, passed away surrounded by his children and family, according to a family statement on Twitter. "Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always...
Fox Business host Neil Cavuto celebrates a career milestone, personal growth

Fox Business News host Neil Cavuto beat Stage 4 cancer and was dealing with a multiple sclerosis diagnosis when he got some more great news from his doctors: he needed open-heart surgery.  With hospitals finally in the rear-view mirror after his return a little over a year ago, Cavuto, who...
More Stories