“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile…”
~Paul Lawrence Dunbar
There’s something strangely familiar inside the dimly lit living room installation of Mickalene Thomas’s latest exhibition, “Do I Look Like a Lady?” at MOCA. The gallery space is embellished in rich tapestries, patterned mosaic wallpaper, linoleum tiles and colorful patchwork upholstered chairs that glow in warm shades of pumpkin, ginger and amber. Four large scale mirrored silkscreened portraits of black icons surround a living room installation decorated with chairs, ottomans, large stuffed pillows and plants. You’re invited to take a seat in space which faces a large dual screen video projection featuring a collage of YouTube footage of various black women singers, performers and comediennes. The cozy, sumptuous setting combined with the raucous sounds of singing, laughing and jokes immediately transported me to the days of my childhood and afternoons sitting on large floor pillows in the family room. During Saturday night parties you could find me hiding under tables eavesdropping on the jokes and stories I wasn’t supposed to hear and when I wasn’t hiding under tables or on the stairs, I’d investigate the record and book collections of the homes we would visit. So I found it funny that my eyes were drawn to the stacks of books and the pillows placed on the floor of Thomas’ installation. To this day I jokingly say that if you invite me to your home the first thing I notice are the books; hidden within this exhibition you will discover an impressive selection of black literature including Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler Jamaica Kincaid and Lorraine Hansberry. One’s collection of books reveal a lot about the reader and they shatter the artifices we spend so much time cultivating around us.
The theme of the shattered facade is repeated in the four portraits of Diahann Carol, Diana Ross, Pam Grier and Naomi Sims that line the gallery walls. The mirrored paintings take on a holographic quality once you notice that there are multiple images painted onto the surface. The prints are detailed in mosaic patterns that cleverly reveal the multiplicities of the women featured within the space. The placement of iconic women with fragmented images dismantles the barriers between the women’s public and private personas, but they also reflect the ever-shifting roles that black women must activate to counteract the effects of sexism, racial bias and hostility towards sexual identity. The physical relationship between the shattered images taking up residence in a safe space that feels like “home” allows women to both remove the social masks worn out of a need for survival and still feel whole within the many roles that define our lives as women.
The dual screen video projection on the gallery wall activates the space and the conversations taking place within it. The installation features segments of musical performances and comedic bits by Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Moms Mabley, Whoopie Goldberg and others in a kaleidoscope of images, soundbites, quips and snaps. The women in this room are having a conversation and as they share their tales of love, life and drama, I couldn’t help but feel like I was transported back to the floor under the table listening to my aunties and taking in all that wisdom. These voices echo the kitchen table conversations among women all around us and in Do I Look Like a Lady?, Mickalene Thomas offers us a seat and encourages us to listen and learn from our proverbial aunties.
Mickalene Thomas, Do I Look Like a Lady? is on view at MOCA Los Angeles through February 6, 2017.