Portrait of Mickalene Thomas

Mickalene Thomas & Avant Arte

A pair of sparkling prints by Mickalene Thomas, a seminal portrait and a previously unseen interior, draw upon reverent elements of her practice.

Register interest

Mickalene Thomas photographed in front of Portrait of Maya #10  (2017), currently on view at The Broad as part of her retrospective, All About Love.

Portrait of Maya #10 shows the multifaceted power of a woman, head-on through the camera lens. Meanwhile, Interior: Red Couch and Landscape displays the imprint of a woman’s life, but without her physical presence. Both prints will be available to order, together or individually, for 24 hours only on Tuesday 25 June.

In Conversation

Ahead of the launch, we chatted with Mickalene on the phone to get the backstory on both artworks. We discussed desire, All About Love, and the infinite joys of collage.

For your upcoming print editions with Avant Arte, you're releasing one portrait and one interior, both staple elements of your practice that date back decades. First, we'd love to hear about the woman in Portrait of Maya #10. Could you tell us a bit about her?

The portrait you're looking at in the edition is of Maya, Maya Nettles. She was a friend and former girlfriend at the time. And probably one of the first that I started photographing back in the early 2000s. I believe this one was taken back in 2006. 

I started photographing Maya in our apartment in Bed-Stuy. I was photographing my mother, so it made sense to photograph the women in my life, and one I was having a more intimate relationship with. It made it easier and more accessible for portraying a sense of desire and exuding that through the image.

So, yeah, it's Maya. She's incredible, incredibly beautiful. But also has a very strong sense of awareness of who she is in the world. I really wanted to convey the vulnerability but the strength in her and how she's standing. I wanted to create her as this monumental sort of essence of being.

And the double exposure on her chest? How did that element of the image come about?

I shot the image from below, looking up, as if she were floating and flying. Then, the projected image on her chest is almost like an X-ray, sort of looking into the soul. 

But it's also transforming this sort of sense of motion and movement. The double exposure of the image is layered from several images taken of Maya in different sequences and series. That's why you see on her chest this movement, because it's overlaid in the collage that I made. But then when I transformed the painting, I removed some of the collage elements.

How does it feel looking back at portraits from your past?

Well, I guess when you look at portraits from the past and works you've made, hopefully, they provide a context of what you want to see of portraits in the future. Most of the portraits that I've done are of women that I knew, such as my mother and, you know, women who are in my life. So, looking at them, I guess I see how they've become who they are. And if I use them again, what makes me happy about looking at their past portraits is seeing how they've changed and transformed themselves. Because a lot of the portraits that I use, or that you see, are of women that I've been working with for many years. So there's a ten year span of working with some of these women. For example, if you take Maya, she's not the same person that she was 10,15 years ago. If I were to photograph her today, I think I would get a different essence or energy from her based on who she is and all her experiences. So, I think the past images of portraits can provide a context for how you want to see them today.

The idea of the muse in your work is something that's built and evolved over the decades of your career. You've really broken down traditional ideas of what a muse is, your works are empowering and celebratory, rather than objectifying. For you, what makes a muse, and how do you want them to see themselves in your paintings?

I think, again, I mean, that can be very complex and very subjective to the connection or relationship that the creative person or the artist has with the subject. I think everything is based on what your sense of desire is towards what is being conveyed in the image. So, I think a muse really exemplifies something that you want to capture, or portray, or see out of the world. And I think, ultimately, it comes down to desire.

Maya as Muse video capture

I want the muse to see themselves the way I see them. Very strong, confident, incredibly monumental and breathtakingly gorgeous. That's what I want.

Mickalene Thomas

Your other upcoming print edition, Interior: Red Couch and Landscape, is a classic example of your interior works that manifest in many different mediums in your practice – from installations and photography to painting and collage. This artwork also provides a beautiful counterpoint to the Portrait of Maya #10, given that there is no actual person in the image, but instead just the mark of a person left on their environment. For this interior, and throughout your career more broadly, how has collage fed into your creative process?

Collage is sort of a mode of construction for me. It's not necessarily just the medium that I use for my interiors. Collage is how I draw and see, create form and composition. It's an anchored way of working with my practice. It's a defining moment of learning, unlearning, and redefining the concepts and images in my work.

It's a way of thinking about the work before the final execution. So all of my works are coming out of the notion of collage because it's how I draw, it's how I think, it's how I sort of culminate and amalgamate all of these sorts of forms in which I'm trying to bring together, from different sources, ideas and, you know, elements that may be juxtaposed from one idea to the other and how you're trying to create a narrative or a story within the image.

It's a way of being repetitive and reductive, as well as to edit, disrupt, and dismantle – creating a space that is topsy-turvy, complicated, complex, or confusing and creating a depth of field of illusion.

And finally, your upcoming show at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, Mickalene Thomas: All About Love, is a homage to the seminal book of the same name by trailblazing author bell hooks. We're interested. Could you share one of your favourite quotes from the book?

One of my favourite excerpts from All About Love is the section where bell hooks talks about two different types of relationships. One relationship is almost familial, and another relationship is about love, not love loss, but how that love has transitioned through her understanding of needing love when she was diagnosed with cancer. And I'll just read the last part of it: 

This relationship did not last forever, and that was difficult to face. All the romantic lure of our culture has told us, when we find true love with a partner, it will continue. Yet the partnership lasts only if both parties will be committed to being loving.

That resonated with me, mostly because of my own healing at the time, so it really struck a chord and gave me a sort of better context of how I need to see myself and understand the situation that I didn't understand at the time. It's a reminder to me that it's not about the love lasting forever, but it's how it was loved.

Mickalene Thomas holds her phone to her ear

© Mickalene Thomas, 2024, courtesy of the Artist

Photographer: Amy Harrity/AUGUST
Interior Photographer: Ollie Tomlinson
Video footage: Ojeras

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