Mickalene Thomas goes head-to-head with black identity

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A single image from Mickalene Thomas's Polaroid Series
  • Elly Fishman
  • A single image from Mickalene Thomas's Polaroid Series

“Tête-à-Tête,” a group show curated by Mickalene Thomas, is rich in patterns and repetition. It features the work of ten African and African-American artists, including Thomas herself, exploring notions of black identity. In her remarkable Polaroid series, Thomas uses Polaroid prints to create a quilt of images that depict various iterations of black female selfhood. Much of the work is rooted in 1970s images of black American women. The settings are garish and colored with bold patterns, animal prints, and bright colors. Most photographs appear at least twice throughout the series; some capture an overt coquettishness, and others are more removed. The colors and subjects’ positioning are reminiscent of Henri Mattise’s Odalisque paintings. Like Matisse's portraits, Thomas's image repetition shifts the viewer's understanding of her subjects. While many women in Thomas's photographs have the 1970s “power sister” look, the recurrence of the subjects softens their potency. As I returned to each of the women individually, I felt pieces of their sexuality and power being lost. They bled into a larger pattern and landscape.

If this is Thomas's intention, it's a provocative one. Sexualized images of women are so pervasive in our culture that it's easy to become desensitized. I often find myself quickly glancing over Maxim, Playboy, and Sports Illustrated covers, never bothering to identify the woman on display. And displays are what Thomas plays with in her Polaroid series—displays of sex, power, femininity, and identity.

Another standout was Malick Sidibé, whose photo exhibit "Studio Malick" is currently up at DePaul Art Museum. Sidibé’s Nuit du 31 Decembre shows a group of six young New Year's Eve revelers, all on the cusp of adulthood. A young woman, something soft about her, stares directly at the camera, flanked by her peers. Nuit du 31 Decembre delicately captures these not entirely formed men and women and their unfinished story.

These artists' contributions aside, "Tête-à-Tête" is a stunning show that provides insight into how we've come to represent identity in culture and art. Other participating artists are Derrick Adams, Jayson Keeling, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Clifford Owens, Mahlot Sansosa, Xaviera Simmons, and Hank Willis Thomas.

Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 118 N. Peoria #1A, Tue-Fri 10 AM-5:30 PM, Sat 11 AM-5:30 PM

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