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Mickalene Thomas’ current installation at MOCA, Do I Look Like a Lady?, foregrounds its major concerns from the onset; the title itself initiates Thomas’ interest in viewership, representation, and identity. Video and sound run on two screens that face the center of the room where Thomas has installed a domestic interior. A strong symbiosis between the video and the interior space hones in on American domesticity as a site of cultural socialization, where the politics of race and sexuality are internalized, suggesting that the private sphere is a deeply political one.
A wide range of black entertainers are featured in the video; from Whitney Houston and Nina Simone to Wanda Sykes and Adele Givens. Piecing together clips of biting social critique and pathos, the video is assertive while negotiating its dignified disposition and righteous indignation. Adding yet another dimension, Thomas’ silkscreen portraits haunt the background. Succinct and sculptural, these portraits are studies in black femininity and celebrity, combining photographic and painterly techniques on fragmented, mirrored glass.
The installation stands to suggest that “what’s there” is hardly an objective truth but rather a byproduct of socialization, and for Thomas, representations of black femininity are crucial to understanding fundamental aspects of black identity. Those many complex aspects are sensitively probed in this work, and the relationships that are made available across installed objects suggest that Thomas’ investigation is as philosophical as it is political. Thomas offers no pat conclusions about black identity but rather instigates new questions through a process of recomposition, prompting viewers to contemplate past representations in an abstracted and non-linear fashion.
Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady is on view from October 16, 2016–February 6, 2017 at MOCA Grand (250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012).