Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure Creates A Space For The Community 

“She built this for us”, a young woman nodded affirmatively to herself as she looked around in awe at Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure, a large scale site-specific installation now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). 

There is something familiar and familial about the domestic sites that Thomas installs. The esteemed photographer has always engaged Black women as muses. Queered portraiture with unabashed sheik, slay and a womanist flex. Thomas charges and monumentalizes intimate memories into entire moods; sprawling immersive environments that exploit the opulent décor of the 1970s and 80s. Mock wood paneling and vinyl flooring. Synthetic and live plant lined walls. Faux fur upholstered benches. The artist even transformed the museum’s exterior façade into a replica of a traditional Baltimore row home. 

A Moment’s Pleasure is the largest installation that the artist and the museum have created to date, and the masterful venture marks the inaugural Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker Biennial Commission. The museum noted that the initiative was created to “provide contemporary artists with a platform within the BMA to realize ambitious new projects and to engage with the community through one of the most accessible areas of the museum.” The commission will rotate every 18 months to allow other artists the opportunity to revamp the first and second-floor east lobby and Terrace Gallery. Museum Director Christopher Bedford has christened Thomas’ intervention, “A living room for Baltimore”. 

“Sometimes being the first is not always the best. It’s more challenging. But, I am always up for a challenge.” Thomas shared during a brief interview. “Knowing that, I said, that’s great, I can take [the commission] and create a huge monumental sculpture, or, I can take that and create experiences not only for myself but for others who it would be so much more rewarding for to be included in the experience.” 

The work comes at a critical moment when art institutions including the BMA, The Met, MoMA and shortlist of others are being forced to reckon with their overwhelmingly white-cis-male collections and non-diverse staff. Since taking the role of Director in 2016, Bedford, and a prominent board of trustees have ushered in a new era for the museum that focuses on decolonizing its collections in favor of purchasing and exhibiting more postwar, and contemporary African American artists and women. Notable exhibits have featured works by Jack Whitten, Mark Bradford, Maren Hassinger, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Adam Pendleton among many others.  The museum’s latest exhibition, Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art, showcases more than 70 paintings, sculptures and mixed media abstractions created from the 1940s to the present by pioneers and younger Black artists from across the diaspora. The museum has also pledged to review and revise gender inequity within its collection; of the nearly 95,000 artworks housed in the museum’s permanent collection, just 4% have been created by women. In 2020 the BMA has committed itself to only purchase works for its permanent collection that have been created by women artists and to prominently exhibit works that focalize women. 

Black Art In America at Prizm Art Fair During Art Basel 2019 – click for catalog of works.

While those efforts are desperately needed and highly anticipated, Thomas’ endeavor challenges the museum to confront its operational practices further by querying the ways it and other major art institutions have devalued non-white patrons and non-white artists. Thomas’ work triggered several questions for me; What is a home? Whose domesticity has been deemed worthy of an exhibition? How will imbuing an elite institution with the comforts and aesthetics of Black domesticity encourage a more diverse viewership? How can the creation of those spaces break the segregated elitism of predominantly white-cis-male art institutions?  

We will not see the results of many of those questions until 18 months from now when the commission concludes. I looked around at others in the room to read their immediate response to Thomas’ work. I saw joy, affirming smiles, and heard sighs of relief. Relief from what, one might ask? Like me, the Black viewers saw themselves, their families, their histories, embedded in a space that rarely exhibits the nuances of black identity as eloquent points of inquiry or subjects that are worthy of critical consideration. 

Looking at Thomas’ work made me recall an old polaroid of my auntie posing in her living room.  I remembered the pristine plastic-covered floral sofas in my grandmother’s home. The houseplants that overtook and invigorated my childhood home. The constructed environments that Thomas creates are love letters, warm, intentional homages that acknowledge and dismantle the elitist chill that resides in art institutions. By occupying historically colonial and segregated spaces and adorning them with what she has called “unabashedly Black aesthetics”, Thomas not only revises conceptions about who these spaces are meant for, she facilitates a shift towards inclusivity. As a result, A Moment’s Pleasure becomes what it hopes to be, a beautiful, welcoming and accessible space for communities who may not otherwise feel comfortable in museums.  Thomas offers a perverse exploration of what it means for Black and queer bodies to feel at home, and make a home, wherever we are.

I asked Thomas if or how people’s responses to her installations inform her work or process. 

“Oftentimes I have a part of my personality where I don’t care about their reaction of response. I think for here, it’s about familiarity. Do certain illusions trigger a moment or memory of family for you? Can you find some element that you can relate to that conjures up the Black aesthetic? Whether it be the faux paneling of the linoleum form, whatever it is within the materials, what conjures up those moments for you? And it’s me juxtaposing all those moments and layering them and creating one of my largest scale paintings three-dimensionally. And how do you do that so that people not only walk around but walk in? I use my visual images to create that illusion.” 

Along with a smaller installation on the 2nd floor, the artist also built and installed Sylvester’s House, a fully furnished lounge and event space, dedicated to the life and legacy of the disco-era icon, Sylvester, in the Terrace Gallery.  Equipped with a bar, cozy screening room and bright retrofitted furniture laden with the embellishments that have come to define Thomas’ aesthetic, one cannot help but stay a while, sit and live a spell in the experience. People leaned against the walls sipping cocktails while they watched a selection of short films by Abdu Ali and Karryl Eugene, Erick Antonio Benitez, Nicoletta Darita de la Brown, Kotic Couture, Markele Cullins, Emily Eaglin, Hunter Hooligan, Devin N. Morris, Clifford Owens and TT the Artist. Children crawled around the furniture as their mothers communed about the intimacies of their lives. Others chatted with each other about the artists who hung along the walls including Derrick Adams, Zoë Charlton, Theresa Chromati and Devin N. Morris. All of those moments including the ways people engage with the space as well as the number of emerging artists with ties to Baltimore that Thomas included in the installation inform the work and transform the installation into a space that feels like home.  

“That became really exciting for me” Thomas continued, “For me, that became the work, that became the art– the excitement from which I could cast the net further and let other people in to utilize the space and to claim and occupy it as theirs. That’s the art. That’s the experience. The people are activating the space as participants. You have to hold institutions accountable so that they are also doing the work because oftentimes what happens is that they bring artists like me in, there’s rhetoric about doing the work, but they aren’t doing the work. Its table conversations about what they want to do, but when it’s time for the work to show up it’s not done. For me, it was very important that the education department was very involved, that the museum be very active in the conversation. And also holding them accountable for reaching out to community organizations.”  

Many of the featured artists are also Thomas’ mentees and participants in networking collaboratives and initiatives that she co-founded including tête-à-tête and Deux Femmes Noires, ventures with her partner Racquel Chevremont, and The Josie Club with contemporary artist Nina Chanel Abney, her partner Jet Toomer and Racquel Chevremont. 

I asked Thomas to share more about her interest in supporting emerging artists.

“As I was coming up as an emerging artist, I felt like there was a lack of mentorship, a real mentorship. A lot of things about the art world are so complex and confusing. People are doing things based on assumptions and not real facts.” Thomas continued. “For example, a lot of art schools don’t teach enough about the art of business, the art of networking, finding their own studios. It’s a business. They don’t learn that. You learn by trial and error. Who’s going to teach us that? Who’s going to support that or provide that?” 

“One of the reasons why Racquel, my partner and I have started Deux Femmes Noires as an initiative was because of that. She and I were both separately being approached by emerging and some midcareer artists about some sticky situations they were getting themselves in, whether it was with galleries or corporations. Artists not getting work back, not getting paid, signing away their copyrights. Just craziness. But they are doing it because they don’t know, because they are assuming that, oh maybe that’s how Mickalene did it. So, for me, it’s providing access through me to other resources so they have an ally, an advocate. I can’t solve all the problems, but I can provide a direction through my platform and my network that I have developed through experience. It’s about bringing it forward so that the emerging artists are still there, they don’t disappear. A lot of the disappearance is the failure of not knowing and about doing it the wrong way.” 

A Moment’s Pleasure continues Thomas’ mission to build bridges and provide greater opportunities for queer and POC emerging artists to exhibit and have their work collected by significant art institutions. The work is more than an installation, it is a commitment to decolonize white institutions. It is also a call to action for communities surrounding the museum to make use of the space Thomas has constructed. There is healing in taking time to sit in leisure. There is freedom in occupying spaces that never imagined the relevance of your presence or pleasure. Thomas has created a powerful monument to pleasure, Black joy and the validity of our lived experiences. 

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Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of art history and culture in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia. Angela contributes contemporary art, performance and film criticism for  BmoreArt Magazine, Arts.Black, Sugarcane Magazine, and Umber Magazine. She received her MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and currently teaches within the Film and Moving Image program at Stevenson University in Baltimore Maryland. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.

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