Anyone who has been inside Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires or had a look at the #MickaleneThomas AGO hashtag on Instagram may have recognized some familiar faces. From actress Whoopi Goldberg to singer Eartha Kitt, Thomas fuses high art with popular culture to make something wholly her own. We took a deep dive into key works from the show to learn more about some of Thomas’s high profile muses.
Eartha Kitt was an actress, singer and civil rights activist. As you walk into Femmes Noires, it’s impossible to ignore the sound of the powerful refrain from her song, “Paint Me Black Angels.” Her tearful performance is featured in the two-channel video installation, Angelitos Negros, 2016, extended to over 20 minutes, featuring Kitt as well as three other performers (including Thomas herself) styled to look like her, as they lip-sync along to the song. Kitt began her career on Broadway and was later famously cast as Catwoman in the final season of the Batman TV show. She went on to record hit after hit including her most recognizable chart-topper, “Santa Baby.”
Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaption of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is a personal touchstone for Thomas. She told Hyperallergic in 2017 that the film was the first time she saw the possibility of love for two Black women on screen. Femmes Noires features four different silkscreen images from the film, with actress Whoopi Goldberg front and
One of the undeniable highlights of the exhibition is a black and white silkscreen portrait of a young Diahann Carroll, done up in ‘60s style with thick eyelashes and heavy bangs. Carroll had a career of firsts: at 27 she was the first African-American actress to win a Tony for the 1962 musical No Strings and she was also the first African-American woman to star in her own TV series (in a non-domestic servant role) with Julia in 1968. The show was an instant hit and won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy in its first season. Carroll continued her successful career with an Academy Award nomination for the 1974 film Claudine, and later famously portraying the loved and loathed diva Dominique Deveraux in the prime time soap opera Dynasty in 1984.
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