Mickalene's Magnificence

Din, Une Belle Negresse 
I will not bury the lead: sprint to see Mickalene Thomas' exhibit, Origin of the Universe," now showing at the Brooklyn Museum. From wherever on the planet you may be reading this, the Bronx or Bombay, Lower East Side or Los Angeles--the visit will be worth your time and money. Thomas' art is that extraordinary. You got a week, the show ends Sunday, January 20th.

I just "discovered" this Brooklyn-based artist yesterday when the museum held a round table discussion exploring the black female body in art. I cannot gush enough about the magnificence and fabulosity of Ms. Thomas' work. Her art made me feel things deeply in a way that only great art moves the soul: as a woman I felt understood, celebrated, empowered. As a black woman, above all, I felt majestic.

Imagine walking to a gallery and the first thing you see before you is a bejeweled vagina, complete with liquid gold representing it's juices. Classy. Dignified. Daring. Fierce and unapologetic, Thomas' Origin of the Universe is a self-portrait and re-imagination of the French impressionist painter, Gustav Courbet's, L'Origine du Monde. Thomas flips the 19th century original master's work the way a 21st century hip hop artist remixes an oldie but goodie and creates magic. She does it over and over again, each piece more bold, brave and beautiful as the next.

Love in the time of now
This is the first solo exhibit of the artist who is known for her dazzling rhinestone-encrusted paintings of African American women. I had seen her work at the MOMA (did not know it was Thomas) but the brilliance of the piece was not fully appreciated because the work was poorly displayed behind glass doors. But the Brooklyn Museum's show is all about it. The exhibit is a splendid multimedia spectacle that includes paintings, installations, photography and collage. Her work explores race, gender, class, fashion, music, interior design, sexuality, colorism, and class. Perhaps it was the scope of the paintings, the embellishments, or the fact that Thomas knows the masters, Picasso, Gaugin, Modigliani, Courbet among others and she boldly and playfully inserts herself and black women into their European and very male conversation and says, "Gentlemen, this is how you do it, this is how you paint a woman!" Thomas' paintings are so large and so in your face, and so hot, one woman said she felt, "cradled." Another said Thomas' paintings were "a balm."

"Din, Une Trés Belle Negrese," is Mona Lisa 2.0. So fly so, so fly! The smile, the big hair, the bold blue jeweled luscious lips and the jewelry on top of the vibrant flowers that reminded of my mom's curtains circa 1978 in Jersey City and my oldest sister--pure amazing. She affirmed my kind-a people and class, and aesthetic and fashion and it felt awesome.

Coincidentally, the model happened to be on the tour that I participated in and raised her hand when I asked the tour guide to tell us more about the model and inspiration for the piece. "What did it feel like to be painted," I asked. Din, as beautiful as the painting, confessed to having an outer body experience seeing herself as the face of the exhibit on posters, subway ads, and yes, in the museum. "It's me and it isn't," she said, adding, "it was weird."

As powerful as the paintings were--done with a mix of materials that include acrylic, enamel, rhinestones on wood panels--peeking into the intimate and loving relationship between a mother and daughter was what took my breath away. Thomas' muse was / is her recently deceased gorgeous mother, Sandra Bush. At the end of the exhibit, or the beginning, if you start from the back, is a short film in tribute to her. "Portrait of a Beautiful Woman" is stunning for its honest look at one woman's struggle with self esteem, drug addiction, motherhood, love, and abuse. Raw vulnerability on display usually makes folks uncomfortable as do paintings of a vulva, but Thomas makes no apologies. She moves in, like she does with her self portrait, Origin and puts it out there with grace and dignity. She takes on subjects we'd rather not discuss in public spaces or subjects we see caricatured and demeaned and boxed into good or bad and smartly finds pathways to celebrate them. Even if you are not ready to, she makes you. She forces you to gaze and think, and yes, feel and ultimately, to celebrate life. I won't spoil the ending, but this is the kind of exciting storytelling that inspires.

Thomas commands your attention from start to finish because you can experience her soul in every detail of her work. It's rare these days to see media that celebrates black women. Days after, you still feel the electricity, hear the music, and feel the power of a woman, a fierce black woman.

“Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe” runs through Jan. 20 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; (718) 638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.