Once upon a time, women were not artists but muses, the word in Greek mythology for the female deities who inspired the creation of works of arts and sciences. Today, the term still applies overwhelmingly to white women who have served to inspire straight male artists throughout history. For the artist Mickalene Thomas the term is neither conventional nor attached to the male gaze. Instead, her muses are active collaborators—models, friends, girlfriends, family members and other artists, many of them black and LGBTQ.
Take Thomas’s genre-busting contribution to the International Center of Photography Museum’s portrait exhibition “Multiply, Identify, Her”— a show that sought to visualize “selfhood as manifold” by presenting works that have been created by an intergenerational group of women artists who “challenge patriarchal ways of looking that define narrowly while presuming broadly” (curated by Marina Chao, which recently closed on 2 September). While the exhibition included strong pieces by artists including Roni Horn, Wangechi Mutu and Lorna Simpson, Thomas’s soaring eight-channel video mounted on four screens, Angelitos Negros (2016), was clearly best-in-show.
This once anti-racist hymn is now a triumph of lip-synch kitsch and a pointed rebuke to the bigotry of America’s current cultural politics
A piece of time-traveling, cross-disciplinary, videotaped karaoke that combines Eartha Kitt’s English-language rendition of the popular Latin-American song Angelitos Negros with re-performances by the artist and two of her muses (one is the artist’s partner, the art advisor Racquel Chevremont, the other is not named), Thomas’s multi-layered version updates a largely forgotten ditty with urgent new meanings. Once hailed as an anti-racist hymn, Thomas’s choral video work turns Kitt’s theatrical interpretation of the 1942 ballad into a #MeToo anthem, a celebration of otherness, a triumph of lip-synch kitsch and a pointed rebuke to the bigotry of America’s current cultural politics.
Fittingly, the song Thomas samples also contains multitudes. First penned as a poem by the Venezuelan bard Andrés Eloy Blanco which was set to music by Manuel Alvarez Renteria, it was later popularized by the Cuban singer Antonio Machín and featured in a 1948 film starring the Mexican actor Pedro Infante. The song has been adapted by interpreters as varied as Celia Cruz, Chavela Vargas, Buddy Richard, Roberta Flack and Cat Power. These artists and others have intoned lyrics that demand to know why churches only display images of white angels, why “painters painting in our time” don’t remedy these narrow-minded representations and, crucially—from the vantage point of the history of art and religion—how we “know our Lord was white”?
Thomas’s installation also implores painters and artists of all stripes to “paint” themselves into a less xenophobic present. By integrating footage of Kitt’s performance with that of herself, Chevremont and a third muse, Thomas mirrors, updates and actively reinterprets Kitt’s gestures and emotions. When Kitt sings, her fellow interpreters trill along; when she tears up, they do too, with differing depths of feeling. Repeated, split and combined across four screens, the women’s images are collaged together, remixing their identities, desires and histories. As an artwork centered on identity, Angelitos Negros is all about multiplicity. Its swooning, intertwined images embody the words of feminist critic Gayatri Spivak: “One is not just one thing.”