Profile: Mickalene Thomas (1971-)

New York-based Mickalene Thomas creates paintings and photographs of African American women that examine, extend, and subvert concepts of female identity and beauty.

Inspired by art history as well as popular culture, Thomas’s works allude to sources ranging from 19th-century French painting to 1970s Blaxploitation films. Her acknowledged influences include Edouard Manet and Henri Matisse, as well as Romare Bearden and Pam Grier.

Thomas bases her paintings on her own photographs, which she reproduces in rhinestones, collage, acrylic paint, and enamel. Her African American protagonists sometimes mimic poses from Western painting tradition, especially those of white female nudes. But they do so while lounging in outlandishly patterned interiors and exuding an aggressive sexuality.

Thomas earned her BFA in painting from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and her MFA in painting from Yale University, though she initially pursued a career in law. Her work is exhibited nationally and internationally in solo and group exhibitions, and she has held several residencies, including the Versailles Munn Artists Program in Giverny, France.

Thomas was also honored with creating the first individual portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, completed in 2008.

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