Visual and written works of art provide a unique platform for people to express their political, religious, and racial identities. Visual artist Mickalene Thomas and author Darnell Moore do not shy away from making the intricacies of their own identities a central part of their work.
Thomas and Moore gathered at the Forum on Wednesday to discuss how their work explores both blackness and sexuality. The speakers were joined by moderator Dr. Kellie Jones, a professor in art history and archeology and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia. The event was the first in an ongoing series titled “Entangled Spirits: A Conversation Series on the Arts, Religion & Politics,” organized by the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities.
The conversation centered around Thomas’ depiction of black women and the black female body, as well as Moore’s exploration of queerness and race in his reflective memoir, “No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America.” The two speakers also discussed their relationships with sexuality, blackness, and the fact that they both grew up in Camden, New Jersey.
Thomas is a New York-based artist whose work has been displayed across the United States and abroad. Her paintings, collages, and photographs primarily focus on modern representations of black women, commonly paired with bright, striking patterns and colors. A selection of Thomas’ work is currently on display at Wallach Art Gallery’s “Posing Modernity” exhibit, where it will remain until Feb. 10 before being moved to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
In an interview with Spectator before the event, Thomas discussed her work in “Posing Modernity,” as well as her relationship with political art.
"I don't think all art is political, but I think making art is a political act,” Thomas said. “I think that because the black woman in America is the most underrepresented person here when it comes to privilege and representation, [it] is a political act in itself to put a black woman's face on an image."
Thomas’ work in “Posing Modernity” plays an important role in reimagining the representation of black women. Her piece, “Din, Une Tres Belle Negresse,” is the centerpiece of the final room in the exhibit. Viewers begin the exhibit looking at the 19th-century work of Manet and Matisse and conclude with 21st-century pieces, capturing how the representation of the black body has progressed over time.
“I think it was an amazing juxtaposition to pair a contemporary artwork with a 19th-century painting,” Thomas said. “I think it was the role of showing the world that we're creating a discourse of conversation that's moving forward.”
The juxtaposition of Thomas’ bold, rhinestone-filled work, alongside Manet’s “La négresse (Portrait of Laure),” especially stood out to the artist.
“It was like one is passing the baton, almost like kindred spirits,” Thomas said, “of two individuals that don't know each other but somehow they're linked. Through passage of time, through culture, through ethnicity, through sense of self, through womanhood, through creativity.”
Though Moore is not a visual artist like Thomas, his writing encompasses similar themes of representation, sexuality, and race. While discussing his memoir, Moore explained that it is not limited to readers who are queer people of color.
“In some ways it can be described as a black queer book … but it’s much more than that,” Moore said. “Partly because I want to think about blackness as much more expansive than heterosexuality. Sometimes people feel that they can’t find themselves in the book, say, if they’re not black and queer. But black was queer before queer was queer. Black was queer before queer was cool.”
Moore went on to talk about how his sexuality influenced his familial relationships. He reflected on the moment when he told his mother he was gay, and how he formulated his own vocabulary to describe the experience.
“I don’t say ‘coming out,’ I say ‘inviting in,” Moore said. “Where I am inviting [my mother] into my life in a more expansive way.”
Both Moore’s and Thomas’ works expand the range of representation of sexuality and race in creative realms, but they also acknowledge that there is still room for more inclusivity and acceptance in their industries.
“There’s a thirst, there’s a desire, there’s a need for people to see themselves within these white walls,” Thomas said. “But those doors are still closed in many ways. Because there is a large part of our world where people just aren’t ready to experience it.”