Mickalene Thomas



Mickalene Thomas (born Jersey January 28, 1971[1][2]), is a contemporary African American artist best known for her complex paintings made of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. Her work draws from Western art history, pop art and visual culture to examine ideas around femininity, beauty, race, sexuality and gender.



Mickalene Thomas was born in Camden, New Jersey in 1971, and raised by her mother Sandra “Mama Bush” Bush who exposed Mickalene and her brother to art by enrolling them in after-school programs at the Newark Museum, and the Henry Street Settlement in New York.[3] As a teenager Mickalene and her mother had a very intimate and strenuous relationship due to her parents addiction to drugs and Thomas dealing with her sexuality, which she documented in the short film “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother.” [4]

Thomas lived and attended school in Portland, Oregon from the mid-80’s to the early 90’s studying Pre-law and Theater Arts. Throughout this time she found herself immersed in the growing culture of DIY artists and musicians leading her to start her own body of work. Most influential to her was Carrie Mae Weems show at the Portland Art Museum in 1994, showcasing a small retrospective of her photography, specifically photos from her Kitchen Table, and Ain’t Jokin series.[5] In an interview with the Brooklyn Museum of Arts, Thomas described this experience with Weems’ work as “familiar” and “transformative,” as it addressed for her, questions about her own identity, sexuality, blackness and the dominant culture. Weems’ work not only played a role in Mickalene Thomas’ decision to switch studies and apply to Pratt Institute in New York, but to use her experience and turn it into art.[6]

Thomas received her BFA from Pratt Institute in 2000 and her MFA from Yale School of Art in 2002. Her depictions of African-American women explore notions of black female celebrity and identity while romanticizing ideas of femininity and power. Reminiscent of ’70s style blaxploitation, the subjects in Thomas’ paintings radiate sexuality. Women in provocative poses sprawl across the picture plane and are surrounded by decorative patterns inspired by her childhood.[7] Her portrait of Michelle Obama was the first individual portrait done of the First Lady and was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery‘s Americans Now show.[8]

Now Brooklyn-based, Mickalene Thomas is best known for her elaborate paintings composed of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. She presents a complex vision of what it means to be a woman and expands common definitions of beauty. Thomas’s work stems from her long study of art history and the classical genres of portrait painting, landscape painting and still life. Inspired by sources ranging from the Hudson River School to Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse and Romare Bearden, she explores notions of beauty from a contemporary perspective influenced by popular culture and Pop art.

In addition to her paintings, Thomas works in the mediums of photography, collage, printmaking, video art, sculpture and installation art. Her works, in particular the Odalisque series (2007), have been interpreted as “investigating the artist-model relationship […] but from an updated perspective of female inter-subjectivity and same-sex desire.” (La Leçon d’amour, 2008)[9] She has restaged themes and symbolism with a long lineage in Western art in her references to the odalisque representation of women in exotic settings. She experimented with institutional images in FBI/Serial Portraits (2008), based on mug shots of African-American women. In 2012, Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe, her first major solo museum exhibition, opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum. This show, the title of which references Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde, showcased a series of recent portraits, landscapes and interiors.

Her short film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, created for her exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, is about Sandra Bush, her mother and longtime muse. In it, Sandra talks about careers, relationships, beauty, and her fatal illness. The film made its television debut on HBO on February 24, 2014, and has run regularly since.

Thomas is represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects; Kavi Gupta in Chicago and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris.

Recognitions and Honors

Mickalene Thomas has been awarded multiple prizes and grants, including the BOMB Magazine Honor (2015), MoCADA Artistic Advocacy Award (2015), AICA-USA Best Show in a Commercial Space Nationally, First Place (2014), Anonymous Was A Woman Grant (2013), Audience Award: Favorite Short, Second Annual Black Star Film Festival (2013), Brooklyn Museum Asher B. Durand Award (2012), Timehri Award for Leadership in the Arts (2010), Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant (2009), Pratt Institute Alumni Achievement Award (2009) and Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant (2007).

Thomas has held residencies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Madison, Maine (2013) (resident faculty); Versailles Foundation Munn Artists Program, Giverny, France (2011); Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Aspen, Colorado (2010); Studio Museum in Harlem (2003); Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont (2001); and Yale Norfolk Summer of Music and Art, Norfolk, Connecticut (1999).


Mickalene Thomas’s work is held in many collections, including 21c Museum, Akron Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Baltimore Museum of Art, Boca Raton Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, International Center of Photography, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, New York Public Library, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Rubell Family Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, Taschen Collection, Mikki and Stanley Weithorn Collection, Whitney Museum of American Art, West Collection, and Yale University Art Gallery.




Solo Exhibitions

  • 2016 – Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities at Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, CO
  • 2014 – I Was Born To Do Great Things at Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago, IL
  • 2014 – Tête de Femme at Lehmann Maupin, New York, NY
  • 2014 – Femme au divan II at l’Ecole des Beaux Art, Monaco
  • 2014 – Femme au divan I at Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris, France
  • 2014 – Mickalene Thomas: Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
  • 2012 – How to Organize a Room Around A Striking Piece of Art at Lehmann Maupin, New York, NY
  • 2012 – Mickalene Thomas at Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
  • 2012 – Origin of the Universe at Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA; traveled to Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
  • 2011 – More Than Everything at Lehmann Maupin, New York, NY
  • 2011 – Mickalene Thomas – Mama Bush: One of a Kind Two at Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan
  • 2010 – Put A Little Sugar In My Bowl at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA
  • 2009 – Mickalene Thomas Alumni Achievement Award Exhibition at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY
  • 2009 – Something You Can Feel at La Conservera Contemporary Art Space, Ceutí, Spain
  • 2009 – She’s Come UnDone! at Lehmann Maupin, New York, NY
  • 2008 – Girlfriends, Lovers, Still Lifes and Landscape at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, IL
  • 2008 – What’s Love Got To Do With It? at Bloom Projects, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, CA
  • 2007 – An Imitation of Love, Brawlin’ Spitfire Two at Project Room, Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA
  • 2006 – Something About You… at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, IL
  • 2006 – Brawlin’ Spitfire at The Proposition Special Project, DUST Gallery, Las Vegas, NV

Special Projects

Mickalene Thomas has collaborated on special projects with institutions and lifestyle brands, including:

  • 2014 – Untitled for Art in Embassies Program, Dakar, Senegal
  • 2013 – Faux Real for Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, FL
  • 2013 – Portrait de Priscilla la Petite Chienne Deux 🙂 for Little Collector, New York, NY
  • 2013 – Better Days for Volkshaus, Art Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  • 2013 – Mickalene Thomas for Brother Vellies for Brother Vellies, New York, NY
  • 2012 – Untitled for Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York
  • 2010 – Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires for The Modern Window at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • 2010 – Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires for On-Site, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY


  • 2015 – Atlanta Television Festival at Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta, GA
  • 2014 – HBO: Documentaries on HBO, New York, NY
  • 2014 – Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman HBO Premiere at HBO Theater, New York, NY
  • 2013 – Second Annual Black Star Film Festival at International House, Philadelphia, PA
  • 2013 – The Poetics of Unforgetting at Hackney Picturehouse, London, England
  • 2013 – Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman at Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA
  • 2013 – Reel Artists Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto, Canada


  • 2013 – Takeabite: The Opera at Performa 13, El Museo del Barrio, New York, NY
  • 2009 – Oh Mickey! for Kreemart and the American Patrons of Tate, Haunch of Venison, New York, NY
  • 2009 – Professor of Music and DJ Dean of Admissions for MoMixx at Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY


Video Art

Further reading


October Gallery Radio

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