Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by the artist Mickalene Thomas, who in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “is to painting what Daft Punk is to music, acclaimed as one of the more original remix artists working today.”
Her genre-busting work takes many forms: painting, photography, silkscreens, site-specific installations using pattern, rhinestone and video to grapple with bodies and their desires with power, equity and identity.
She often draws on art history in order to subvert it, for instance positioning black women as the main characters in reimagined versions of celebrated paintings, such as Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe or Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
A major retrospective of her work, entitled Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires, is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until the 24 March.
Mickalene Thomas:“Whatever that moment is—whatever that power is, or that mysticism, the mystery that one may feel when they’re inspired by or excited by particular art—I knew that’s what I wanted to do with images. I knew I wanted to create that space for others.”
Also joining us today is Thomas’s friend and collaborator Antwaun Sargent, who is a cultural critic and writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vice and our very own In Other Words, to name but a few.
A social media phenomenon with more than 56,000 Instagram followers, Antwaun uses his position to bring attention to overlooked black contributions to contemporary culture.
Antwaun Sargent:“What’s being reinforced is that they are good. The critic is the like button now.”
Rounding out our discussion today is Racquel Chevremont, a collector and art advisor as well as Mickalene’s partner and muse. Together, Racquel and Mickalene are co-founders of Deux Femmes Noires, a project aimed at increasing visibility, opportunities and connections for emerging artists of color.
Racquel Chevremont: “Most art by artists of color was being collected by non-collectors of color. So, all of our culture, our heritage, all of that was being put into homes that were not ours.”
Before we dive into the episode, here is your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com.
And now, onto today’s show.
Okay! Thank you all very much for being here.
This is a kind of collaborative podcast, which seems very in keeping with the way that you work, Mickalene. You bring people along with you.
Your muses are your friends. Your gaze isn’t that detached, kind of superior gaze of Western art history. It’s very much to do with your circle and with your friends, your partners, your community in that way.
Mickalene Thomas: It was no longer enough for me to just see my own work on the wall. I actually began to be bored with that, myself. I wanted to see my work in dialogue, in conversation with either up-and-coming artists, emerging artists or artists that I looked at as mentors or was inspired by.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Mickalene Thomas: You know? Because that’s the dialogue and that’s the transformation of your own studio practice. It’s also those individuals that you’re connected to in the world.
So, when you’re exhibiting your work that conversation should be there. Some of that should come through. There’s always the saying about the ego of the artist and for me, the ego’s there but it’s not enough to have that, for me. That’s not what fulfills me fully as an artist.
Charlotte Burns: Was that a shift?
Mickalene Thomas: It was a shift.
Charlotte Burns: Was there a moment where that had been enough and now it wasn’t anymore?
Mickalene Thomas: I don’t think it was ever enough. I never understood it, like, the trajectory as an artist. You go to art school, you get your degree, you do some residencies. The idea of getting exposure and getting out there and getting your work out there in the art world is to exhibit. And that’s great, because those are wonderful platforms. But what are you really doing? What are you really seeing? Where’s the community?
Charlotte Burns: How do you make that more alive?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes. I think exhibitions like Tête á tête and my collaboration with Racquel, with Deux Femmes Noires, curating, really expands on that and fulfills that need for me.
Antwaun Sargent: I wrote this article about how black artists, collectors, dealers and cultural workers are meeting demand of the market. I think that one of the things that I really particularly liked about Tête á tête, where there’s been not enough opportunity for artists of color, artists have taken that on themselves to create those spaces, right?
You see it with Tête á tête but you also see it in more silent ways. You also have artists advocating behind the scenes and buying younger artists’ works and developing relationships like the relationship that you and Carrie have, Carrie Mae Weems, where you really have an ecosystem that exists outside of some more traditional or institutionalized ways that really push artists of color forward. That’s largely being done by other artists.
Charlotte Burns: That’s something that we wrote about. Last summer, we published an in-depth investigation into the representation of African American artists across American museums and the international market. We worked for months to gather the data and then conduct a series of interviews with artnet, and we co-published this. There has been a little bit of progress, but nowhere near the levels that you may be led to believe. But what you’re seeing is other artists bringing their communities along with them whether that’s artists within galleries saying, “Well, you show these artists, but my context are these artists. These are the artists I was looking at.” You see that part of the growth is being led by that sense of community—creating your own context, it’s maybe not even community. It’s just about having that voice and sharing that voice and bringing other people along to make it less monolithic, more powerful in the sense that it’s more complex, I think.
Community is something I wanted to talk to you about.
Antwaun, you wrote an essay for the “Soul of a Nation” exhibition in which you talked about sitting with the elders of your neighborhood as they “gossiped about the 1960s and Black Power—which produced in my mind, a competing image of contemporary black life compared with the one I knew, a time before crack when marches for civil rights turned into clenched fists and black lives mattered. When there was a real sense in black America that by using our experience, the community could uplift itself and all of the nation.”
It occurred to me that you’ve also talked a lot about this idea of community [Mickalene]. You talked about a bond that you wanted all diasporic black women to share. You said, “I want them to see there’s a sisterhood in America for them, and that there’s this camaraderie, we’re in support of each other.” One of the most eloquent articulations of this was your work Angelitos Negros (2016), where you took Eartha Kitt singing that song, and you brought yourself into the work, and you also brought Racquel into the work, and another collaborator. You said: “This song is everything. It’s so timely, it says everything I’m trying to say, and I’m putting these black angels out there. I’m doing it.”
I thought that was so great.
Mickalene Thomas: I had done some research and pulled off YouTube all of these clippings of her. Being an avid fan of Eartha Kitt and seeing her perform at the Carlyle, she’s been a part of my body of work since, actually, graduate school at Yale University. I sat with this clip for a while, but I didn’t really know what to do with it.
Charlotte Burns: It’s so powerful in itself.
Mickalene Thomas: It was very powerful in itself and it resonates completely and deeply. It moved me, and I knew I wanted something to do with it. I wanted it, actually, to be a performance—some type of performance.
Once I decided that I was going to have it be in formation of a video, I knew that I wanted the women in my life to be a part of it. I wasn’t initially going to be a part of the film. It was actually Racquel who encouraged me to put myself in it.
Charlotte Burns: I like that.
Mickalene Thomas: Because I’m always using the women as a vehicle for myself but not thinking of myself, physically, to be a part of it. Oftentimes she’s pushing me like, “Well, where are you in it?”
Charlotte Burns: Oh, I like that.
Mickalene Thomas: So, I think that’s when it really changed, because it really allowed me to connect.
Charlotte Burns: You had a more emotional connection with it, right?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes. It allowed me to be one of the angelitos negros instead of demanding that of the women that I was actually pulling through.
I required that each of us would learn the lyrics. I gave them the song, listened to it and then I—almost like an Andy Warhol screen test—filmed them in the studio. And I still didn’t know what I was going to do with all of this information that I collected, once I filmed them.
But it was during the editing process where I realized that it was a collective voice. I was already creating a sisterhood with this found footage and then with my own footage that I’ve created. I think it’s powerful in its own. It says a lot. It says everything I want to say in my art.
Antwaun Sargent: There’s that line, “why are there no black angels—”
Mickalene Thomas: Why are there no black angels in art history, why aren’t we seeing ourselves? Basically, we’re not seeing our black bodies.
It goes to what Denise Morell [wrote] for Posing Modernity, just the idea that we’re there but we’re not talked about.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Mickalene Thomas: We’re not included in the conversation.
Charlotte Burns: Not seen.
Mickalene Thomas: We’re not being seen. And so, I think this piece is very timely. It sits well with many of the conversations about where black women are today. There’s this real need to look and understand the plight of the stereotypical conversations around who black women are.
Charlotte Burns: What do you mean by that?
Mickalene Thomas: Because I feel like, still, the black woman is positioned as the bottom. When you think of positions of, like: there’s the white man, there’s white women, there’s black men and there’s black women. Even though we’re highly educated, we’re really persevering and penetrating all of these different markets—whether it be different industries of CEOs—we’re still considered to be at the bottom in how we’re looked at in the media. We’re less likely to be the ones considered for particular positions. We have to really fight for that.
It goes back to… I had one woman look at my work and one of the things that she got from my work, actually at the AGO, she came up to me and she’s like, “Oh, these women are very militant.” I just looked at her and said, “Wow. That’s what you got from this piece.”
Charlotte Burns: Which says more about her reaction to that strength—
Mickalene Thomas: That you got that these women were militant.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Antwaun Sargent: I think it says a lot about what Mickalene is up against. When she talks about the common depictions of black women in culture and society, that strength has been weaponized against black women. What might appear to be agency is seen as being militant.
Mickalene Thomas: Exactly. It’s also many bodies. You have these four black women who are analogous, looking alike, same wigs. She feels that there’s this aggression because there’s this assertiveness and love for themselves. Therefore, it is perceived as something that is militant.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting because love is the word that comes out of your work more strongly than anything else.
Mickalene Thomas: That’s why I was very surprised by it. I remember having the conversation with the curator and she was like, “This is really strange that people will perceive in how they perceive the black body, when we are demanding to be recognized or validated, and how that is turned.” I think that’s often the notion sometimes, even with myself, is that you’re being aggressive, even when I’m not coming off that way. It’s like, “No, I’m actually just being myself.” I think that’s ultimate, this stereotype.
Charlotte Burns: So, this idea of changing that: do you think you can change that through art?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes, I think I am changing that through the images that I have put forward and the type of women that I portray. The type of woman that I’m interested in and that I portray are not necessarily conformed to what traditions are in society of what conventional beauty is.
I attach myself and pride myself on working with women who had to fight and persevere for a particular space, or they come from little means, or they’re the mothers that have raised their many children or nieces. For me, those are the women that I’m speaking to, mostly.
Antwaun Sargent: It’s interesting because I’ve always conceived or seen your work as having two conversations. One, kind of with this conversation around power, race and beauty that goes back, art historically. But then there’s also this conversation where, when I walked into the Brooklyn Museum and saw your work I immediately recognized women that I knew in my life and started to think about what it must mean for those women to come and see your work and be able to identify with it in a one-on-one way. Which is a different kind of conversation. I think that—
Charlotte Burns: I think so.
Antwaun Sargent: It’s a different conversation. I’m always wrestling with that and thinking about what is and isn’t black artistic production and what conversations are being had. It’s always, in my mind—at least in most contemporary work—it’s these two conversations. One with community and one with the outside world.
Mickalene Thomas: I think that has to do with the type of women that I choose to work with—
Charlotte Burns: Mmm-hmmm.
Mickalene Thomas: —and allowing them to bring forth all of who they are. I think that’s where the collaboration is.
Charlotte Burns: It’s that interplay between subject and object. That’s sort of both; that tying into art history but also being present in an everyday sense—in your life, but also in the lives of people who walk in to see your shows. That idea of representation is something I wanted to talk to you about. You had intended to study law, I understand?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: But after seeing an exhibition of photographs by Carrie Mae Weems you made the decision to focus on art. And you said that was the first time you had ever seen yourself in art.
Mickalene Thomas: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: And that those photographs hit a core and you said, “I felt, that’s what you can do with art? Wow.” This issue of representation: of seeing, of being seen and having been seen. I wondered if you could talk about it a little more for me today?
Charlotte Burns: So, you grew up with art but kind of outside of it?
Mickalene Thoms: Yes, I grew up with art but never saw representations of me. So, I’m in Portland at this exhibition and I understand every aspect of The [Kitchen] Table Series (1990) by Carrie Mae Weems. I understand the woman standing there, I understand the little girl sitting there in the pigtails and I understand the man on the side. I understand it, I can smell it, I can see it.
To me, that familiarity with the image was so powerful that I didn’t know that art could transform you that way. To me, that was very powerful at that particular moment in my life.
Charlotte Burns: How old were you then?
Mickalene Thomas: I was in my early 20s, like 21, 22. I was still trying to figure out at that point, while living in Portland, whether I wanted to continue the route going into law because at this point, I had slowed some of my courses down and hanging out with a lot of artists at that particular point. But I was still in between trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
It was at that moment in front of those particular photographs where—it could have been the context, living in Portland, Oregon where the demographic of African American individuals are… the percentage was very low, about two percent. So, I wasn’t even really seeing myself in that environment.
Charlotte Burns: Also, wasn’t this a period in your life when you were trying to find your own freedom?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes, I think I had found my freedom in many ways. I definitely came in touch with my own identity as a queer person and really reconciling with that.
Charlotte Burns: You’d left New Jersey rather than coming out to your family, I read?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes. I left New Jersey because I didn’t feel as though it was a safe place for me. And Portland became that safe place and I created a chosen family, and all of that. So, I was really, emotionally, dealing with a lot—but also, very independent and, as a young person, successful. I had a good job and had great friends and had a little education and traveled a little.
Then I stumbled into—I’m taken, actually—to this show by a friend who’s a photographer who said I must see these photographs and discovered that Carrie Mae Weems was actually from Portland, Oregon. That was very exciting for me to see—not only that it was a woman who made these works, but it was in an institution and that I could see myself in these works.
A lot of the art I was seeing when going to galleries with my friends didn’t move me in that way. It didn’t excite me, or it wasn’t about me—
Charlotte Burns: And possibilities.
Mickalene Thomas: Yes. So, that was probably an amazing and transformative moment that allowed me to go: “That’s what I want to do.” If whatever is happening to me at this particular moment as I’m standing in front of these Carrie Mae Weems, whatever that moment is—whatever that power is, or that mysticism, the mystery that one may feel when they’re excited by or inspired by particular art—I knew that’s what I wanted to do with images. I knew I wanted to create that space for others.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting because from the get-go, it was about yourself and others. That sense of finding yourself in something and then feeling that possibility and figuring out how to share that with other people.
Mickalene Thomas: That’s the thought process when I’m making my art. Always “Am I doing that? Am I creating that same space for some other young girl?” To me, it doesn’t matter culturally or ethnically who they are. Am I transforming their lives? Do they see themselves in the work, and how do you do that? I think that’s the power of art, when one is able to gift that without even knowing. Carrie Mae Weems didn’t know she transformed this young person’s life.
So, to come back and then be able to photograph her for “The Greats”, I mean, you couldn’t write this story—
Charlotte Burns: You could, but you’d make it a movie.
Mickalene Thomas: Yes, you’re making a movie, right? If someone was to tell me that this was going to be my journey, during that time I would have thought, “Okay, they’re crazy.” But it’s been very exciting. For me, mostly, when I put my images out there and I get the stories of the range of women—not only the age range of different types of women, and not only just black women, all types of women—who come up to me and they say they see themselves in my work, I think that’s very powerful.
Charlotte Burns: Well, there’s so many different forms of femininity in your work, and you explore that and it’s meaningful and profound, but also often very playful. There’s a lot of room to see yourself, I think, within those images.
Mickalene Thomas: Well, yes, I hope. I built these installations to allow them to find their way and connect on some level. Because I think the type of spaces that I’m creating, anyone who steps in can find a moment. Whether it’s the record albums or something. Music—so it’s literature or music or image. It’s like creating these spaces so that when they enter it, they themselves feel very comfortable. They’re so comfortable that they occupy it.
Charlotte Burns: Thinking about popular culture—and this is something that’s in all of your work—the work Do I Look Like a Lady features various snippets from YouTube of female comedians. There are these women performing—and stand-up comedy has to be one of the most male-dominated areas of entertainment that there is, and that’s saying something—and these women find ways to talk about their bodies and their sexuality and their desire and create something. You said about the work that you felt these women had helped you become an artist.
That sense of being in art history and also being within popular culture is something that I think is in your writing, Antwaun, as well as in your work. Also thinking about fashion, the recent fashion shoot that, Mickalene and Racquel, you did. You brought that sense of play, but also thinking about the idea of femme identity and who we see in fashion. I thought that was really interesting. Lots of those collaborations are beyond the white walls of an institutional setting.
Antwaun Sargent: Which I think made people resonate with the work even more. This idea of style, self-styling, self-presentation is something that particularly bodies of color are always grappling with, against this backdrop of the stereotype. One of the things that is really, almost most interesting to me about Mickalene’s work, is that it’s almost like a call to action. That sisterhood is an action.
Charlotte Burns: That’s a great way of describing it.
Antwaun Sargent: It’s a call for you to create the world or community that you need to create to survive.
Charlotte Burns: This idea of a call to action is something that, Racquel and Mickalene, you’re really thinking about with the project “Deux Femmes Noires”. The idea behind this is to increase visibility and opportunities for artists of color in two ways. One is working with them directly to provide guidance and opportunity. And secondly, in terms of exhibitions whether its curating exhibitions, advising institutions or securing funding. Can you talk to me a little bit about this? I know it’s something that’s been fermenting for years.
Racquel Chevremont: Like you said, it’s been fermenting for years and we finally felt we were in a position to be able to create some change. You can’t do that without being in a particular position. We knew we had to get to that in order to really make some difference.
We had a lot of artists that would approach us asking for help with certain things and we were just like, okay, let’s make sure that we create something that’s larger. So, it’s not just doing curation. Curating shows is great, but also there’s some advice on galleries or on their work, how they should position themselves. I was a collector when I first entered the art world and then became an advisor.
Charlotte Burns: How did that happen? How did you make that shift yourself? That sounds like an interesting story in its own right.
Racquel Chevremont: I was on the acquisitions committee at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at the Guggenheim. Throughout that time, I built a collection that then institutions started to borrow from. My friends saw what was going on and they just started asking me to help them. It kind of just came naturally—
Mickalene Thomas: Very organic.
Racquel Chevremont: It wasn’t something I was intending to do, but I guess it turned out I had an eye. People started approaching me. It just kind of happened.
And I say “kind of happened” in a way which isn’t really true, to some extent, because I started something called the “State Street Salon” to try to get people of color—collectors that look like me—people who were not collecting but had the means to collect and were using their money for other things that were kind of frivolous, as far as I was concerned.
I would bring in artists and curators and then collectors and writers into my home. I’d have one artist for that evening who would do a presentation on their work and speak about it. I would talk about the market. And I hoped to gain more collectors of color in my age range, to get them more interested in collecting. Because I realized what it was that was keeping them from collecting was that they didn’t know. It was kind of an educational thing. So, that was a way of bringing about that education.
Charlotte Burns: Why did you want them to collect? Why did you think they should do that?
Racquel Chevremont: Because I realized that most art by artists of color was being collected by non-collectors of color. So, all of our culture, our heritage, all of that was being put into homes that were not ours. And I felt, we buy cars. We buy purses. We buy watches—
Mickalene Thomas: Rolex.
Racquel Chevremont: We buy all these other things. So why not art?
The difference that it makes in your children’s lives and your life—it’s immeasurable. And I just felt that it was an educational thing. These are doctors, lawyers, bankers. So, they’re bright individuals in their own fields. Highly respected. But they didn’t understand art.
Charlotte Burns: They hadn’t made that leap.
Racquel Chevremont: They hadn’t made that leap because in their minds, artists are the people who live hand to mouth. They didn’t think of artwork as something you collect, and you spend your money on. Then there were those that felt like, “Well, we have always had to prove ourselves to get any sort of respect.” And so, in order to do that, we would spend our money making sure that we looked right and that we had all of the accoutrements that would show the world that we deserved respect.
And art doesn’t do that for you. It’s in your home, it’s on your walls. No one sees it. So, that’s the other thing—the boundary that we had to try to figure out. How do we get past that? How do we get past feeling the need to be validated by other people and then spending all this money on things that are not valuable and don’t add anything to your life, really.
I thought that was what I would have to do, was figure out how to get into their heads in that way. I was successful to some extent. There were a lot of other people that never collected, and they just couldn’t make that leap. But then there were some that did, and that’s how I ended up advising them.
Charlotte Burns: I knew there was a story in there.
Mickalene Thomas: It’s great, right?
Charlotte Burns: That’s a great story.
Mickalene Thomas: I was one of the artists, remember?
Mickalene Thomas: So, with that—in our conversation and our relationship and our partnership—and both of us individually, but also collectively, our love for art and artists and emerging artists and supporting and advising, we decided to launch Deux Femmes Noires. Mostly, separately, artists would approach Racquel for advice and they would approach me, and then I would kind of nudge them over to Racquel.
It would be as far as, like, contracts for different corporations that are interested in special projects, or there’s a gallery that’s interested in doing a group show or a solo show and they have these bizarre terms that they’re pushing on them. And I would say, “Hey, wait a minute, why are you…? Don’t sign that! What are you about to do?” I didn’t necessarily have all of the legal background, and Racquel had some more information or knowledge on it and so I would direct them to her to have these conversations.
We just realized this was happening very consistently with so many different types of artists. Even some artists that were renowned in their field. And years of just not even understanding as a young artist when you make it to a certain point—when you start making money or selling—that you need to become a sole proprietor or a business. That alone. Or even about taxes or about cataloguing your own work.
Charlotte Burns: Right. Keeping track of things.
Mickalene Thomas: Keeping track of things. It’s a whole list. It’s not necessarily just about the market but, okay, how to run your studio, which is for artists, it’s a business. It’s a small business. We’re not taught that in school. We’re not taught the business side of the art at school. We’re encouraged to make. We’re encouraged to produce, and we’re encouraged to be creatives and come up with ideas and have discourses around our work, but we’re not taught—there’s no courses, very few. I think there’s some now that are being developed in schools about the business—
Charlotte Burns: The practicalities of that.
Mickalene Thomas: The artist and the marketplace.
Racquel Chevremont: The business side of art.
Mickalene Thomas: Which is very challenging and very scary when you are a young artist and you have a lot of these galleries approaching you and they want to have these solo shows and it’s great—
Charlotte Burns: Feels like a great idea, but it may not be.
Mickalene Thomas: But you would think that when you’re splitting 50-50 that then the gallery would take on that responsibility of helping to educate the artist of what they need to do. I didn’t learn that through a gallery. I learned that through other friends, what I needed to do in order to run my studio or operate it.
Charlotte Burns: You kept control for a while. It took you years to sign with a New York gallery. Was that a conscious decision?
Mickalene Thomas: Very conscious. A lot of my friends at the time were becoming very successful, whether they were exhibiting commercially or at museums. I just didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel that I needed to jump in bed with the gallery right away. I wanted to really have time to develop my own practice and build my own studio because I felt like that was very important for me.
So, when I did begin to work or decide to work with a gallery for representation, that I would have a sense of what I needed to do for myself.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, so you could make clear-headed decisions.
Mickalene Thomas: Absolutely, absolutely. I just was learning from a lot of my other friends’ mistakes and looking at them getting into situations that weren’t always favorable for them. It wasn’t always some of the best decisions. Some of those opportunities that came their way maybe wasn’t good for them at that time. And I recognized that and I didn’t want to have some of those things happen to me.
Racquel Chevremont: We also recognized that she didn’t have the ability to pick up the phone and call Carrie Mae Weems or Kerry James Marshall—
Mickalene Thomas: Exactly.
Racquel Chevremont: Or anyone like that.
Mickalene Thomas: That was very important. That’s a key part.
Racquel Chevremont: We want you to pick up the phone and call us so that you have someone. We don’t want to be untouchable or unapproachable. The more of us that come up, the better. We want the room to be filled with us. The only way to do—
Mickalene Thomas: That’s the community.
Racquel Chevremont: That’s the community. The only way to do that is mentorship and to make everyone feel comfortable enough to reach out to us.
That’s the only way for any of us to really get the respect that we deserve in the art world is if the more of us there are. In every field: as curators, as writers, all of it. It all matters and it’s not just the prices of the artwork or, “Oh, it’s so fashionable now to collect African American art because it’s valuable,” or something. That’s not enough.
Mickalene Thomas: I think most people aren’t talking to each other about what these things are. Nobody is communicating. Like Racquel said, I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I don’t know what to do here—”
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Mickalene Thomas: “—is this how it works?”
Charlotte Burns: How to navigate all of that.
Mickalene Thomas: Yes. It was really being thrown in with the wolves and having to figure it out on your own. I think having that sense of community where you can feel like, “Oh, let me just call Mickalene. Let me call Racquel and ask, oh, should I be doing this? Is this the right conversation?” Having that support system, which I felt like for me navigating, was missing. Even though I had these mentors and people that I looked to, I didn’t feel that I could pick up the phone and say, “Hey, is this right?”
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting because then the only force weighing down on you is the market and as you just mentioned, Racquel, there’s been a huge amount of attention paid recently, look at 2018, and the growth of the market for work by African American artists.
How is that something you navigate, as an artist yourself and as people working and consulting? How do you navigate that?
Mickalene Thomas: I think you shouldn’t necessarily look at that. I think that’s, a lot of times, what young artists do—they look at the end game or they look at the result, and not necessarily the work that it takes to get there.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Mickalene Thomas: You can’t look at that market and say, okay, that can happen to you because it’s a speculative market. You have to know that some of these artists who are achieving this, like Kerry James Marshall, he’s been working—
Charlotte Burns: For decades.
Mickalene Thomas: For decades!
Charlotte Burns: That didn’t just happen overnight.
Mickalene Thomas: It didn’t happen overnight, and to really understand that.
Racquel Chevremont: And in his mind, Mickalene happened overnight even though it took her a decade.
Mickalene Thomas: I had that conversation with him. He’s like, “You happened overnight!” It’s like, no I didn’t happen overnight!
Racquel Chevremont: But for him, the fact that it would happen even in ten years is overnight.
Mickalene Thomas: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: Which makes sense when you consider the context of his work and how long he was just creating work with barely any attention being paid.
Racquel Chevremont: Right. Now we are coming across artists who are getting this attention a year out of school or even while they’re in school. It creates a different perception and a different school of thought for them.
Mickalene Thomas: Because they want that right away.
Charlotte Burns: You start chasing that.
Racquel Chevremont: Yes. You start chasing that and you have to think, do you want to be in art history? Do you want to be a part of art history? Or do you want to be the flash in the pan who was in this biennial and then, three years later, no one knows anything about you anymore?
If you pick out the catalogues—these back catalogues of say the Whitney Biennial—all the big artists that were there, you don’t even recognize or know half of the artists in there anymore. It’s a slow run.
Charlotte Burns: You have to have patience.
Mickalene Thomas: I used to beat myself up for not being in the Whitney Biennial, but I think it’s okay now that I’m not.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so funny, that was your personal benchmark.
Mickalene Thomas: No, no, it’s still been, you know, an uphill fight.
Racquel Chevremont: It’s the tortoise, not the hare. Don’t race for this instant celebrity. I think that’s also a commentary on where we are as a people right now.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. Instant gratification.
Racquel Chevremont: Right. Exactly. I understand some of that with the younger artists, so we’ve also tried to help navigate that. Instagram celebrity as an artist does not mean that you’re going to be in it for the long haul, and that you’re going to be in art history. And what is your goal?
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Racquel Chevremont: Is your goal to just make a lot of money and become famous? Become a celebrity? Or is your goal to really be someone who’s taught in classrooms?
Charlotte Burns: Here’s where I’d like to cut to Antwaun, because you’re a master of social media. You’ve used social media to bring attention to what you want to do. How did you harness that? I feel like there’s probably advice you can dispense here too.
Antwaun Sargent: I mean—
Mickalene Thomas: Teach me!
Antwaun Sargent: You have to be very deliberate about any platform, especially one that you don’t control. One where if you share an image, it becomes the property of Facebook, Inc.
I think there’s been, simultaneously, things happening. Art leaves the classroom. Museums and institutions being very hostile against certain communities has led to a gap in terms of visual literacy. You have people online just liking what they’re seeing with no real understanding of what makes a good picture, what makes a great artist, or whatever.
Then you have a younger generation of artists who are technologically savvy because they grew up this way, who are capitalizing off of that. Where it makes me feel weird is that it’s almost saying like, so every painting or every image you make is good?
Mickalene Thomas: Yes.
Antwaun Sargent: Do you honestly believe that? Because what’s being reinforced is that they are good. The critic is the like button now, right?
Mickalene Thomas: It’s the like button, yes.
Antwaun Sargent: Which is not someone who is invested in the career of or the decisions that are being made, that are being wrestled with, that are being arrived at in a studio through experimentation and stuff like that.
Mickalene Thomas: One of the things that I noticed as a teacher and educator that makes it difficult for me to work with emerging artists is that these platforms, these social platforms, have given them some validation early out the gate. Because you have collectors that are looking onto these social platforms to purchase and support artists, which are great. But then, if there are these emerging artists and they’re in schools—undergrads, BFA, graduate students—they’ve been given that nod of validation of success because now they people out in the world who are collecting their work.
So as an educator, when I go into their studios as a visiting artist or the instructor to have these conversations about their work, they couldn’t care less about what I have to say about their work. They could care less about what I have to say about their work. They may just have likes. Because they’ve garnered this validation of their work, because they’re using it as a platform to get it out there in the world.
It makes it very challenging for me and most other instructors to really push them, push their work for experimentation because they’ve been selling.
Charlotte Burns: Right, and it’s really interesting about the way in which the market has become so dominant as criticism has become—
Antwaun Sargent: Less important.
But the reason for that—why has criticism taken a back seat? It’s because for the history of criticism, the history of art, is white people. Even now, thinking about other black writers who have dedicated themselves to art and the art world and artists, there’s very few that come to mind. When you talk about encouraging another generation and wanting people to come with you, I’m like, “We need more people of color to think about this work on their terms and write about it and put it out there and—”
Charlotte Burns: To take the time to engage.
Antwaun Sargent: To take the time. I think that it’s important and it allows us to not only see our stories but write our stories, which is just as important.
I’ve gone back and forth about the value of Instagram. In some ways, it has played a role in exposing artists or giving artists platforms that museums didn’t. When we have these conversations, we have to also be mindful of the fact that museums until relatively recently—and I mean like, maybe the last year and a half—has locked out artists of color and women and so on.
In that way, social media has been helpful to expose a younger generation. But my advice is: do not brand yourself on these platforms. People are not brands. What you should be doing is really finding a way to authentically communicate your ideas. That is where I think the disconnect particularly in a space like Instagram happens. Because you have this drive toward celebrity that really undercuts any kind of critical consideration of the work.
To make it even more nuanced, that’s not everyone’s goal. You shouldn’t have to be as good as Mickalene or as good as Carrie Mae or as good as Kehinde or Kerry James Marshall or a slew of other artists to have your work considered. Something I’ve always been interested in—your work is a great example of this—but how are we having a conversation with not just the people in the art world or in the room?
So, I’ve been trying to balance that and sometimes friends—and Mickalene and Racquel—have pulled me aside and said, “Why did you write about that person?” I think that it’s trying to find that balance. I don’t think we’re having a big enough conversation about collecting. I don’t think we’re having a big enough conversation about who should be collecting, because very often we’re seeing these very simplistic representations of black art and the possibilities of black art.
Arguably, something like the Kerry James Marshall work that was bought, the way that that was talked about shows you some of the issues that we’re up against.
Mickalene Thomas: The issues and the misconceptions.
Antwaun Sargent: Exactly. One of the biggest misconceptions is that people thought Kerry James Marshall—
Mickalene Thomas: He got the money.
Antwaun Sargent: —walked away with $21.1m. I was like, “No, that’s not how the market—”
Charlotte Burns: That’s not how that works.
Antwaun Sargent: There’s all these other kinds of conversations that are worth having around where works end up and it’s not just this simplistic, like, money—
Charlotte Burns: And also, the expectations of success. I always think that when there’s a record set for a female artist, which was a price that was so unremarkable for a male artist, it’s deflating, actually. Like, that’s the record?
Antwaun Sargent: What we’re being asked in this moment to do, particularly with black art, is to allow for these kinds of flashy numbers to distract us from any real institutional change.
When we’re looking at these numbers, you’re right. They’re unremarkable. They’re not sign of success or sign of change that people think they are—
Charlotte Burns: They’re not systemic.
Antwaun Sargent: Exactly. Are you collecting work over an artist’s lifetime? Because artists, obviously, their concerns change and the work changes, and you should be interested in not just collecting a work but telling their story across their career. Which then also brings me to this idea of that, are you buying the works and then putting them on display? Because I would love to see those numbers, too, about how many of the works are actually being hung.
Racquel Chevremont: Being hung, right.
Antwaun Sargent: Not only that, but—to even more complicate this—where are the works being hung? You have a historical precedent that the work of women and artists of color are often put in their free galleries on the first floor
Racquel Chevremont: It shows that they’re just checking the box.
Antwaun Sargent: The box, right.
Charlotte Burns: It was quite interesting doing the data. I was speaking to one of the museum directors and he said to me off the record, “You know, we’re really trying. But we don’t have that much money and we’re trying to correct on so many fronts. We’re trying to correct in terms of buying from women, buying African American artists, buying Asian American artists.”
There’s this realization that art history has excluded so many different kinds of people and there’s a move to try and correct that, or at least appear to be correcting that whilst scrambling underneath to bring on board the donors, bring on board the money for that. It’s amazing how that pressure escalated so drastically that now different museums are trying to do different things.
Interestingly, it was the smaller museums that have been excluded from the mainstream market because they’ve been priced out of the contemporary market for so long who’ve been making the greatest change.
Antwaun Sargent: For them to just say exactly what you just said, Charlotte—just to be honest about it, because I think what is also happening is, what the kids say, clout-chasing. It’s like this PR game of doing the bare minimum and then having these headlines.
What’s kind of unsettling is they’re totally willing to play the PR game, but not back it up with any real, substantial, systemic changes. The people who are making these decisions are typically not people from those communities.
Charlotte Burns: Right, so that’s—
Racquel Chevremont: That’s the only time things will change is when the people, when the boards and the leadership of these institutions starts to look like the population.
Antwaun Sargent: We want not a representation, we want representations.
Me and Mickalene had this conversation at the AGO that was part of the conversation for her show where I turn to her and I go, “Your work is really kind of a charge to the institution to say, ‘I shouldn’t be the only one’.” There should be other women artists and women of color artists in this institution. Instead of Mickalene saying, “This is my moment,” and whatever—
Charlotte Burns: You’re sharing that and demanding.
Antwaun Sargent: She made a demand on the stage.
Mickalene Thomas: I made a demand and stated that they should not only have me, but they should give this same platform to a black Canadian woman artist because the only two that have been there prior to me, were myself and Wangechi Mutu. And that was a project, and that was seven years ago prior to my solo show that’s up now.
And, I have to say, when I was invited to do the show I was invited to do the show as a project. As a project. When they asked me what my blue sky was, I stated my blue sky was to have the entire fifth floor just like Yayoi Kusama, and if they weren’t going to give me that then I did not want to do the show.
Antwaun Sargent: But that’s important, right? That part of it’s a negotiation. It’s like that Jay-Z line about the superhero: “You need me more than I need you”, right? And having the confidence to say, I’m not going to just take anything to essentially help you out, make you seem more diverse, make you seem more in vogue.
When you were talking about your relationship and having artists call you, part of what, on the periphery I’ve observed, is that you’re also saying, “Sometimes you’re going to have to say no.” Sometimes you’re going to have to say, “What’s my value in this community, and how can I just not make it okay for myself to have this three or four-month show, but have it so someone else can come after me?” Because if you don’t, what’s going to happen is, “Oh, we showed Mickalene Thomas two years ago.”
Mickalene Thomas: It’s enough for them. They checked that box.
Antwaun Sargent: It actually shuts down diversity, opposed to encouraging diversity. Those type of conversations—
Mickalene Thomas: You call them out, you make them responsible.
Antwaun Sargent: Exactly. Exactly.
Mickalene Thomas: You make it public, right? You voice it. You put them on the spot so then they are embarrassed and now they have to respond. Now they have to take responsibility and really look at themselves—
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Mickalene Thomas: —look at their own institution and say, “She’s right. We have not once shown a black Canadian woman artist as a solo artist here. Why?”
Charlotte Burns: Right, and think about that.
Mickalene Thomas: And think about that.
Antwaun Sargent: That’s what’s interesting about “this moment”, if you want to call it that. It’s that there’s a lot of thought that goes into putting a work like Mickalene’s on the wall, or Carrie’s, or a black artist, Amy Sherald. But none of that process has turned reflective in terms of the institution. Why aren’t the institutions grappling with the questions they’re asking the public to grapple with when they’ve hung a Mickalene Thomas on the wall?
Mickalene Thomas: That’s excellent. Yes.
Antwaun Sargent: That part of it seems bizarre: for you to make a demand on an audience but then not live up to that same demand. That type of internal investigation is what’s necessary and needed in museums.
Mickalene Thomas: Because the collective forces are much more powerful with many than just one.
Antwaun Sargent: Yes.
Mickalene Thomas: Of creating change.
Charlotte Burns: Well, I think all three of you are doing such interesting work to bring about that change and I’m so glad that you came on the show to talk about it today. It’s been a really fantastic conversation. I kind of feel like we could make a five series podcast out of this, you know? There’s a lot more—
Mickalene Thomas: This is part one.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, this is part one. We’ll come back and talk more again soon. This has been really great. Thank you so much for being my guests today.
Antwaun Sargent: Thanks for having us.
Mickalene Thomas: Thanks for having us.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you guys.