Black women are beautiful, complex, and worthy of love. It sounds so simple, and yet here we are.
While representations of black women have increased on television and movies, it’s still an exercise in extremes. It’s easy to scan from well-worn negative tropes and stereotypes like the “angry black woman,” or “the baby mama,” or the “hypersexual black Barbie” to the powerful leading ladies of “Hidden Figures,” “Being Mary Jane,” or “Black-ish,” but there are few stops in between.
In fact, according to a 2013 report in Essence, negative depictions of black women appear twice as often as positive ones. These representations are demoralizing, and, speaking from personal experience, exhausting and embarrassing. Thankfully, we can look beyond television and film for positive representations in pop culture.
Mickalene Thomas brings bold, powerful representations of black women to fine art.
Based in New York, Thomas is known for her large-scale paintings of domestic interiors and multi-textured, rhinestone-covered portraits of women. Her work is colorful, vibrant, and affirming. Her paintings of women appear as collages, with small pieces accenting and challenging each other. Each woman is more than the sum of her colorful, mystifying parts. Time passes quickly as you attempt to “figure her out,” but you can’t. Therein lies the beauty.
Thomas’ photography series, “Muse,” seeks to challenge norms of black beauty.
In the series and book, “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs,” she portrayed black women in highly stylized, fantastical portraits.
With each photograph, Thomas redefines black beauty for herself, pushing back on tired stereotypes and outdated norms. Each one is a stunning act of resistance.
Thomas drew inspiration from portrait photographers like James Van Der Zee (who beautifully documented the people of the Harlem Renaissance with his pioneering tableau portraits) as well as pro-black modeling campaigns from the 1970s featuring stars like Beverly Johnson.
Instead of using professional models for her series, Thomas’ muses include her mother, sisters, lovers, and friends. These visually stunning portraits are a truly shared effort between Thomas and the women who’ve had an impact on her.
In addition to “Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs,” released in 2015, Thomas has exhibited her work in galleries around the country.
Through March 12, 2017, “Muse” is on display in the Meyerhoff Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Thomas also curated a companion exhibit of photography, called “tête-à-tête,” which is also on display at MICA.
Representations and depictions of black women are vital.
It’s still too easy for little black girls to grow up seeing few positive depictions of black women outside of their families. It’s easy to grow up feeling less than or unworthy when women with curly or kinky hair, women with full lips, and women with rich, dark skin don’t make it to your picture books — or your history books, for that matter.
That’s why we need to shout out and celebrate black women as the superheroes they are.
Black women write laws, start businesses, make art, explore the natural world, build towers, save lives, and teach at local schools. Yes, we are strong, but we are also tender, loving, and vulnerable. Black women are the embodiment of balance and resilience, holding down families, communities, and nine-to-fives, while pushing back against racism, sexism, and privilege. It’s hard work. It breaks you down. But black women, for better or worse, keep grinding.
There is beauty in our strength, but you don’t get to see that. Not nearly enough. And that’s why black representation matters, why black art matters — it’s a love letter to our persistence.