How Mickalene Thomas Breaks Up the Modernist Boys Club

When Pablo Picasso and other early modernists appropriated elements of so-called “primitive” African art for Cubist and proto-Cubist works such as 1907’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon they perpetrated a kind of artistic colonialism similar to the economic colonialism that brought back African treasures to French museums and galleries in the first place. It was an exclusively European, almost exclusively male club that marginalized not just the African culture it emulated, but also the women that were often the subjects of their art. In Mickalene Thomas: Tête de Femme, African-American artist Mickalene Thomas breaks up the modernist boys club a century after its formation and takes aim at the lingering effects of its subtle misogyny and racism that continue in the visuals of our present-day culture.


Thomas has always taken on the sins of the art history canon in her art. The Odalisque genre itself, which has inspired artists ranging from Ingres to Matisse, came under Thomas’ scrutiny in her 2007 Odalisque series, which examined the politics of the genre’s eroticism-exoticism mix in the context of both African-American women in general and female same-sex relationships specifically (think not just Ingres’ solo Grande Odalisque, but also his male fantasy harem group shot The Turkish Bath). In Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, which appeared at the MoMA in 2010, Édouard Manet The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) gets the Thomas treatment in a restaging with three African-American sans the suited gentlemen surrounding the nude women in Manet’s original. In 2012’s Origin of the Universe at the Brooklyn Museum, Thomas took on the most objectifying painting of all time, Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du monde by focusing on the faces of strong, confident African-American models rather than on Courbet’s controversial fixation. Although Courbet and Manet broke barriers with their art in their time, they still continued many of art’s traditions, including the objectification of women. In Mickalene Thomas: Tête de Femme, Thomas continues up the chronological canon, leaving the 19th century roots of modernism behind and striking at the trunk of the influence tree—Picasso.

Depictions of African themes and African-American women have always been at the heart of Thomas’ art and life. Thomas’ mother, Sandra Bush, worked as a model and even modeled for her daughter’s art. The short film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman features Thomas’ mother and asks her questions about her career, her relationships, beauty itself, and her terminal illness. “What’s it like to be a muse?” the film asks, extending that question to how does it feel to move from being the object in commercial modeling work to the subject of her daughter’s fine art. Thomas grew up in the 1970s, the height of Blaxploitation, born in 1971 (like Thomas herself) with films such as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Shaft. But whereas those first films came from a male perspective and emphasized male African-American machismo, later movies such as Foxy Brown, starring Pam Grier, displayed powerful, sexual African-American women such as Thomas’ own mother that became the template for women in Thomas’ art. Thomas adds rhinestones and other flashy effects to her art as an homage of sorts to the over-the-top Blaxploitation aesthetic, but beneath those touches beats the heart of Foxy Brown and her sisters.

In Tête de Femme (in English, “head of a woman”), Thomas reconstructs the deconstruction behind early Cubism in works such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the African-inspired group portrait of bathers (perhaps prostitutes?) whose faces and bodies have been sliced and diced by Picasso’s modernist take on African sculpture’s stylized distortions. In Thomas’ Carla (above right), Thomas misaligns the model’s eyes a la Picasso, but the tight cropping of the subject’s head forces the viewer to still try to look the model in the eye. We want to make a connection, but can’t, thus emphasizing the disconnect of Les Demoiselles a century ago. In the midst of these political statements, Thomas never loses sight of the pleasures of painting, as in Untitled #2 (above left), in which the collage effect of different planes of color and texture brings together beautifully all the elements of the individual’s face—all hanging together with that single signature touch of rhinestones in the middle as a poor person’s precious jewels here given a special dignity in context. Thomas doesn’t just show how depictions of women and minorities went wrong for so long. She shows how they can go wonderfully right, too.

I remember standing in one of the central galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts a few years ago and finding myself surrounded by four monumental portraits—Thomas EakinsThe Gross Clinic, Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum, Kehinde Wiley’s Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, and Mickalene Thomas’ Din Avec la Main Dans le Miroir. Three male artists outnumbering a single woman; two whites and two African-Americans; two from American art’s past and two from its present; and in the midst of all those painted male faces just two women—the witness in Eakins’ painting cringing at the sight of a surgery in progress and Thomas’ subject staring you straight in the eye. I didn’t know much about Thomas at the time, but the surgical precision of how she carved out a personal space among the big boys in the room made me seek her and her art out afterwards. Mickalene Thomas: Tête de Femme reminds us that finding space among the dead white male canon is important not just for appreciating the art and artists of today, but also for appreciating and understanding better the art of yesterday.

[Image: (Left) Mickalene Thomas. Untitled #2, 2014. Enamel, acrylic, oil paint, glitter, rhinestones, oil pastel, dry pastel, graphite, and silk screen on wood panel. 96 x 72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy Mickalene Thomas and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and ARS (Artists Rights Society), New York Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein. (Right) Mickalene Thomas. Carla, 2014. Enamel, acrylic, oil paint, glitter, rhinestones, oil pastel, graphite and silk screen on wood panel. 96 x 72 inches (243.8 x 182.9 cm). Courtesy Mickalene Thomas and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and ARS (Artists Rights Society), New York Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein.]

[Many thanks to Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York City, for providing me with the images above and other press materials related to their exhibition, Mickalene Thomas: Tête de Femme, which runs through August 8, 2014.]

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The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

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The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.