Do I Look Like a Lady? Mickalene Thomas at MOCA

Mickalene Thomas, Do I Look Like a Lady?  at MOCA Los Angeles. Photo Credit: MOCA

“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

Installation View of Do I Look Like a Lady?, Photo:CSA

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.

Mickalene Thomas, Naomi Sims, 2016. Silkscreen ink on acrylic mirror. Photo: CSA

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.

Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh

Simone Leigh. “Althea”, 2016; Courtesy of the Artist and the Hammer Museum. Photo: Brian Forrest

Happy Friday everyone!

Today my review of Simone Leigh’s new show at the Hammer Museum is currently featured on Daily Serving.

Be sure to check it out!


Colony Little explores Simone Leigh’s first West Coast solo exhibition at the Hammer in Los Angeles.

Source: Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh

Truth to Power: Sojourner Truth at BAMPFA



In 1864 Sojourner Truth, a former slave turned abolitionist, filed a copyright for her name, using photography and mass media as a strategic tool to fight slavery and the damaging propaganda used to perpetuate it.

Her astute use of “cartes de visites”using her nom de plume was an economical way to share photographs and amplify her message.

Truth became a powerful orator speaking at abolitionist lectures in the north and she sold the carte de visites by mail to support herself and her devotion to her cause to end slavery.

The Berkeley Art Museum is running an exhibition on Sojourner Truth that compiles over 80 pieces of photography, cards and other ephemera that Sojourner Truth used to reinforce her strong abolitionist and feminist messages.

Many of the cartes on display at the Berkeley Art Museum were found in the family photo albums of the abolitionists who saw Sojourner Truth speak.  In this sense, the carte de visite became a powerful weapon in fighting the portrayal of African-Americans in caricature and derogatory media.



The exhibition featured an immaculate display of items (including a gilded copy of Sojourner Truth’s book) and the stories behind each piece in the show were expertly memorialized in a museum handout that was an essential and informative adjunct to the items shown.

What I love about Sojourner Truth’s story is that at the age of 46 she re-named and re-invented herself (born Isabella Baumfree).  She was determined to claim agency over her persona and using the tools and skills she had at her disposal, she executed on her vision.   When she couldn’t read, she found someone to read and write for her; when she wanted to fight propaganda, she created her own counter-message; when she wanted to promote industry and advancement for black people she artfully demonstrated those skills in photography and reinforced those visuals in practice.  In short, she was a master marketer.

If you don’t tell your story, somebody else will.

Time Travel with La Négresse

La Négresse, Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, 1868
It is no coincidence that I experienced “La Négresse” by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux while at the Berkeley Art Museum last week.  At the time I was reading “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a pseudo science fiction novel (for lack of a better genre) set simultaneously in slavery and 1976.  In the book a woman is transported back in time armed only with her knowledge of the present but she is rendered powerless as she attempts to navigate her role as an enslaved black woman in the antebellum south.  She toggles between two worlds with the sole purpose of saving an individual who has caused her undue harm, unaware of how to navigate her new reality as a fish out of water.

In many ways the bronze sculpture feels exposed, like a fish out of water in the main gallery at BAMPFA.  La Négresse sits in proximity to a neon Dan Flavin, a collection of brightly colored, large scale Hans Hoffman paintings and a Philip Guston. The gallery placement of the bust reveals a dramatic contrast between time and medium.

Carpeaux’s bronze cast is a study that was part of “Fontain de l’Observatoire” in the Luxembourg Garden in Paris.  The fountain consists of 4 women representing 4 different continents, whose bodies subtly twist toward a global sphere placed in the middle of the fountain. The women are flanked by horses that appear to be charging out of the water.

Fontaine de l’Observatoire, photo credit: EU Touring


Inscription at the base of “La Négresse” reads: “Pourquoi naître esclave” (“Why born a slave?)
At BAMFA “La Négresse” is a bust of a bare chested woman twisting both her torso and gaze to the left. The loose ropes draping over her body suggest bondage, while the engraving at the bottom of the bust confirms it:

“Pourquoi naître esclave” (Why born a slave?)

It is unclear if Carpeaux was challenging the institution of slavery, Africa and Europe’s role in slavery, or America’s resistence to abolish it. I do find it interesting that in Carpeaux’s bronze study, the ropes are loosely bound, but her arm placement suggests that her hands could be bound.  The final fountain (which was completed while the artist’s health was failing) features a full standing figure in ankle shackles.  This not only distills Africa’s existence to the institution slavery, but it is also a monolithic portrayal that ignores the limitless, innovative contributions of Africans across the diaspora and the world.  In other words, do we see beyond slavery? Ultimately, Carpeaux’s question engraved on the bust challenges that monolithic view while also reinforcing it.

“After la Negresse, 1872, 2006”, cast marble, dust and resin. Photo credit:  Kehinde Wiley Studio
This is why Kehinde Wiley’s “After La Négresse”, 2006 is so interesting to me.  In this marble and resin bust (not on view at BAMPFA), a young man wears a basketball jersey and casts a similar forlorn look over his left shoulder. In this piece Wiley transports the same visual clues from 1872 to 2006 and asks similar questions regarding the subject’s circumstance. Both subjects have shoulders that angle downward as if their hands are tied (or handcuffed) behind their back. Here it is unclear if the Lakers jersey is a liberator or an enslaver.  Are sports a ticket out of a particular circumstance or a salve that keep us dreaming unattainable dreams? Is it even fair to heap a one size fits all ideal onto a sculpture like that?

Both works explore the idea of people being enslaved by imagery.  In both “La Négresse” and “After la Négresse” we are left wondering if the subjects are being liberated from their plight or held captive to it.  As a representation of Africa, does slavery encapsulate an entire race?  Similarly, when we look at the state of black men today, are they trapped by imagery perpetuated by the media? Neither views are comprehensive but both demand exploration.

A Tribute to My Grandmother


Editor’s Note:  Sometimes the important matters of life will creep onto this site.  In all honesty, I have had a hard time focusing on art while dealing with the death of my beloved Grandmother on August 30th.  I thought I’d share because she was so very special to me.  I look forward to jumping back into Culture Shock Art soon, but in the meantime I needed some closure. Thanks for understanding.

~Colony, Culture Shock Art

Gma Graduation Jpg.jpg

My Grandmother’s long battle against Alzheimer’s ended in the early morning hours of August 30st.  As the only Grandparent I have known my entire life, her loss was particularly devastating to me.  With Alzheimer’s the final goodbye was a slow, gradual one as she slipped into various stages of memory loss and dementia, but a few important things remained: her wicked sense of humor, her love of music and the joy she found in photos.
My grandmother doing what she loved;  looking at photos. 
This is the picture my grandmother is looking at above. Four generations. 
Grief took up residence in my heart over the last 12 days as I tried to manage it by keeping busy, helping my family prepare for her services over the weekend.  I combed through pictures and listened to her collection of soundtrack and comedy albums.
During those days the whirl of memories fluttered around me.  My grandmother was the matriarch of our family- her home was the epicenter of family gatherings of children, grandchildren, great grand children, siblings nephews and friends where we enjoyed meals, told stories, cracked jokes, ate peppermint and butterscotch candies, collected seashells, played bid whist and fought over who would take home the final slices of her famous apple pie.
Visiting home and spending time with my family, many of which I am not able to see regularly, we took comfort in assembling the pieces of my grandmother’s beautifully complex life.  While it is unfortunate that loss unites us in tragedy, I am grateful for such a loving and supportive family and I will cherish the time that we were able to spend together.
While on the plane heading home yesterday the Southwest flight attendant launched his impromptu comedy set, heaping praise on the Oakland Raiders for their win, but he quickly ended on a somber note related to 9/11:
“Remember, ‘Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.’  I know at least one of you needed to hear that right now.”  
It was at that moment that I had to send my grief packing.  The memories of my grandmother will live on in my heart, not the pain from her loss.
In the meantime, Alzheimer’s is a menacing disease that I have no intention of ignoring.  Because I could not visit my grandma as much as I wanted to, I spent countless hours in feeble attempts to understand more about the disease.  The Alzheimer’s Association was a tremendous help to me, providing resources, kind words of support and much needed information for caretakers and loved ones.
Last week we created a memorial page for my grandmother, Velvia Lyle through the Alzheimer’s Association.
Please consider making a donation to help the association provide the support, care and research needed to minimize the effects of this disease.  I want to thank all of my friends and family for their love, support, cards, kinds words, smiles, laughs and hugs.
Velvia C. Lyle Memorial Fund


When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: Youthful Indiscretions Don’t Always Remain in the Past

Installation View: “Imitation of Life” at the Broad. Photo credit: Ben Gibbs via The Broad
The theme for this week: “Youthful Indiscretions”.  Our memories of the mistakes of our youth are sharply influenced by how we recount them over time. This week, a 32 year old swimmer at the Olympics got the benefit of an extension of his youth.  Ryan Lochte was labeled a “kid” who was just having fun after he maligned a country by using their vulnerabilities against them to fabricate a lie to cover up vandalism and otherwise abhorrent behavior.  While he apologized in social media for his actions, it rang hollow for most of us.  I don’t think he has grasped the extent of the damage his lies have caused Brazil and people of color. They exposed truisms about how privledge and bias work in our society.  Sadly, Ryan Lochte gets the benefit of doubt by being perceived as a 32 year old kid, while a 12 year Tamir Rice gets gunned down for playing with a toy.

In recent weeks three notable women in the art world have given us a glimpse into their limited field of vision. Creative director Vanessa Beecroft posits that despite her European lineage, if she  “believes” she is an African American male (her alter ego), that it does in fact, makes her one.

Then there’s Marina Abramović who likened Aborignial Australians to dinosaurs using pre-colonial anthropologic descriptions to substantiate her observations. I could almost hear the proverbial shovel hitting hard clay as she kept digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole.  The artist was quick to point out that these innocent observations were plucked from a 1979 diary and do not reflect her current understanding of Aborigines.  She was 32 at the time.

Cindy Sherman’s current retrospective at the Broad showcases her work as a photographic chameleon who transforms herself into characters in print.  These images reflect society’s views on the portrayal of women in media and film over time and I have long admired her ability to fabricate vividly intricate stories through her photography.  Recently, a series of photographs have come under fire in a Huffington Post article that resurrects a 2015 hashtag #cindygate created by Mhysa @E_SCRAATCH.
Screenshot 2016-08-19 17.33.28
Cindy Sherman’s Bus Riders Series, 1976. Photo credit: Huffington Post via Mhysa @E_SCRAATCH
Sherman’s 1976 “Bus Riders Series” depicts numerous men and women she encountered on city bus rides.  This early body of work included shots of Sherman sporting blackface against a simple white background with the artist acting out exaggerated caricatures of black women.  These fetishized flat notions of blackness are in stark contrast to the deeply intricate narratives Sherman carefully crafts in her subsequent work.  According to wall text at the Broad this work serves as a portal into her artistic process.  I think it is a window into the artist’s bias.

Every one of these examples revolve around how bias shapes perception.  If anything, this is a stark reminder that we do not navigate this world free from bias or perception.  What’s frustrating is the art world’s reluctance to look deeper into the social constructs that develop these perceptions in the first place.  Additionally, these recent examples by three art world luminaries also expose our over-reliance on using the innocence of youth as an excuse to dismiss and ignore the actions of the past. I recognize that we should look at the early work of artists just out of grad school as exploratory and should be taken with a grain of salt, but if we simply forgive and forget, do we ever learn?

Scholar artists like Deborah Willis use their work to explore these questions of perception, identity and image.  I love the contemplative moment captured in a beauty salon that is a recognition of beauty that also challenges the viewer with the question, “what is it about me that frightens you?”.  The image shot by Willis of artist Carrie Mae Weems looking at herself in the mirror brings us into this personal examination.
Debra Willis’ beautiful portrait of Carrie Mae Weems.  Photo credit: New York Times
When you look at Weems’ series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, we see an exploration into the use of photography a tool to shape our perceptions of the black body; these perceptions continue to plague us to this day.
As black women we examine ourselves through the eyes of others, and constantly toggle between our own awareness and others’ perceptions of us. This is a process that white artists have the luxury of avoiding-it is one that I wish Sherman had explored when she was asked to comment on it for the Broad’s retrospective. The series was hidden for years until Sherman resurrected the work in a year 2000 reprint.  In describing the work she dismisses it as youthful naiveté.
Screenshot 2016-08-19 13.28.08
The Broad and their guest curator also missed an opportunity to shed a critical light on how this series fits into the balance of Sherman’s photographic work.  A springboard into this dialog can be found in the show’s title.
Susan Kohler and Juanita Moore in Imitation of Life, 1959.  Photo credit:  A World of Film
“Imitation of Life”, a 1959 remake that was originally produced in the ’30’s is about a light skinned black girl who spends her youth denigrating and denying her identity as she passes for white.  This entire movie deals with the child’s struggles when she sees herself in the mirror and ultimately buys into the larger society’s perceptions of European ideals.  Her desperation to cling to the white gaze is a painful theme througout the film.  The indiscretions of her youth carry forward into her adulthood and are only brought to light through tragedy.

This is why curators are vitally important. In this instance I think it is essential for the Broad to place this particular work in its proper social context for the viewer.  The dialog should acknowledge the juxtaposition between the artist’s ignorance of blackface then and their understanding of it now. It is also important to recognize the painful legacy of the past and the indirect ways this imagery has permeated our culture throughout the years.  By doing so we can illuminate a path forward to properly establish canon.