Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noires

Immediately upon entering Femmes Noires at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), you can sense a change in the atmosphere. Mickalene Thomas, is a contemporary New York based visual artist. Femmes Noires ranges from film compilations of black women exploring their nature to incredible larger than life paintings that use rhinestones and sequins, Thomas— and her work, are a vision. Femmes Noires is Thomas’s first solo exhibition, and it holds all that is true blue to Thomas — installations, videography and paintings. Her art is heroically fantastic with a dash of grotesque. It does not reclaim space, but instead uses space that was rightfully hers. What might be considered tacky or unprofessional with her use of rhinestones in her paintings, somehow does the opposite and resonates with the viewer. 

The first room in Femmes Noires contains a handful of large scale paintings, differing in subject, colour and bling. Each painting is energetic and stands on its own two feet with or without the cushion of the surrounding exhibition. All of the women in Thomas’s paintings are dominant and bold, allowing themselves to repeal agains the sequins that are engulfing you. As you exit and move onward, you view one of two living room installations. Initially, the living room comes off confusing, it’s not until you spot the didactic panel which permits you to interact with the display that it begins to make sense. Reading paraphernalia litters the floor, 70’s decor, chairs and pillows provide you comfort to sit and observe the large scale videos on the East wall. As you move onward, Thomas’s wide range of mediums prevails. Leaving behind painting and videography, Thomas brings back the silkscreen with her work, Diahann Carroll #2 2018 without any trace of Andy Warhol — as if she engineered the technique herself. Large scale polaroid photographs taken prematurely and littered with bleach get scanned, blown up on photoshopped and relayed onto a mirror. Diahann Carroll’s face fades into the mirror but somehow remains prominent enough to stand out so that your reflection is hardly seen, not that it’s relevant. 

Thomas was born in 1971, in Camden New Jersey, into a family ran by a single mother, Sandra Bush who was an artist herself. Bush was a model who cared for her children and integrated them into the arts at a young age. In the late 1990’s, Thomas was exposed to local artists with no formal art training and found inspiration, she began to start her own body of work, later deciding to go to art school. Thomas received her Bachelors in Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in 2000 and later her Masters in Fine Art from Yale in 2002. Embracing her race and sexuality along the way, Thomas started to create collage pieces, incorporating different photographs and 1970’s funky patterns into her work, much like the living room installation at the AGO, which later she reports is the nostalgia of her of her living room in New Jersey.

What you feel when you exit Femmes Noires is sublime. Gender, race, and sexuality these days is a hot and taboo subject topic. Syllabi encompass them, essays surround them and professors command them. While each subject is important to be taught today, it unfortunately has become an excuse for people who think they are artists to create bad art. They become misguided by thinking that if they display such subjects they are the “avant-garde.” However, what most often emerges is blatant anger at the dominant discourse and expressing disgust for it outwardly and yes, Andrea Fraser’s docent imitations do come to mind. It is an amateur way to go against the grain. Yet, on the opposite and nearly impossible side of the spectrum, Thomas explores what it means to be a black woman in America only displaying passion and true talent. She emerges showing herself to us and asking; but not pleading for our validation, with no bad art in sight. 

Space: Joi T. Arcand and John Hampton

The installation “Space” has the opportunity to be easily overlooked and dismissed by pedestrians as nothing more than a billboard. However, that does not mean I am passive about Joi T. Arcand, John Hampton and their billboards. In fact, I am enthralled by their original idea - art that is consistently on display. In order to pick apart Space for its true intents and purposes, it would benefit the billboard to compare it’s similarities to a papoose house. 

A papoose house is an at-home restaurant that originates from El Salvadorians who immigrated to America. It’s a family-run business that sells home-cooked meals from their living room. The idea was conceived by immigrants to preserve the El Salvadorian heritage and culture to ease their diaspora. A papoose house spreads solely based on word of mouth, therefore only a keen eye can recognize one and understand what it is. Space takes a keen eye to recognize that it is an art installation. Arcand and Hamptons’ billboards aren’t displayed in a “white-box” sanitary space of an art gallery, nor do they have didactic panels for the viewer. That is precisely why they’re so unique. Space presents a language that many of Toronto’s general population can’t decipher, Nēhiyawēwin known as Plains Cree, a dialect spoken by Algonquin Indigenous peoples. Arcand and Hamptons’ immense billboards present rich photographs disappearing behind Nēhiyawēwin syllabics. Their billboards work like a papoose house to preserve the heritage of Arcand and Hampton’s indigenous roots. 

Joi T. Arcand, born in 1982 into the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 2001, Arcand attended the University of Saskatchewan. In 2002, she began her practice as a photographer and printmaker. In 2005, she graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts with Great Distinction. Present day, Arcand is an indigenous visual artist and jewelry maker. She uses her Cree culture, heritage and language to as the forefront of her retrospective work. She’s one of the artists behind the 2018-2019 billboard project in Toronto’s West end titled Space, John Hampton, an indigenous artist and curator is the second. He curated Arcand’s visual billboards. Hampton has received his Bachelor of Visual Arts from the University of Regina in 2009. In 2014, he received his Master of Curatorial Studies from the University of Toronto.

In September 2018, a billboard of a meadow sky with a young child were hung outside of two separate Toronto contemporary art institutions. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) hung the billboard titled kiya itako (translation: be you). Atop the photograph of a meadow sky, a Cree syllabics phrase was written across. The phrase was, “nēhiyaw kiya māka namōya kinēhiyawān”, which translates to, “You’re not Cree If you can’t speak Cree”. Kiya itako hung outside of MOCA’s West exit. The second billboard, also titled kiya itako hung outside of Mercer Union, a ten-minute walk East up Bloor Street from MOCA. This second billboard featured a meadow sky with a photograph of Arcand as a child a-front. The phrase written across was, “namōya kiya nēhiyaw kīspin namōya kinēhiyawān”, which translates to “You’re Cree but you can’t speak Cree”. 

Kiya itako hung until late October of 2018. In November 2018, Kiya itako changed to a  photograph of Arcand’s great-grandmother as a young woman. She possesses a playful look in her eye to meet the gaze of the viewer. Arcand’s grandmother’s words are sprawled across her great-grandmother’s portrait in Cree syllabics, translated to, “It would be good if they were able to speak.” The photograph is reminiscent of an old newspaper, black and white on large-scale matte paper and with grainy texture.

How should kiya itako and “It would be good if they were able to speak”, be categorized? What I won’t do is compare them to an advertisement. Space has far more weight and cultural significance. One thing is certain, the phrases that are chosen by Arcand and Hampton speak fiercely to the importance of knowing your culture’s language and to the loss surrounding Arcand’s own cultural identity. Precisely, Arcand’s style has the ability to catch the eye. Her concern for the future of her culture is prevalent in their billboards, reinforced by integrating syllabics into her body of work. I appreciate the level of intimacy that not only expresses herself as an individual, but calls on her history as an indigenous woman. The use of Cree syllabics sets an intention to communicate directly with those who colonizers have tried to erase and forget. It displays what should be conventional wisdom, but is not.

Western thought dictates that indigenous peoples and their culture are a thing of the past. It’s a saddening reality that Europeans heavily massacred and abused indigenous peoples. However, we must remember that they failed to erase them from Canada.

Every indigenous person was affected by colonialism. Indigenous communities are still alive and indigenous culture is still being passed down through generations, Arcand learned to speak in Plains Cree later in her life, and her billboard is a testament to that. 

Indigenous peoples carry a different world view than colonizers. Therefore, by covering their billboards in syllabics and not the dominant language of Canada, Arcand claims the wall alongside Mercer Union and MOCA’s West exit to be her own. A world dominated by the West as its centre and puts the rest of the world in its peripherals is an old notion that we need to work on putting behind us.

Cultures use language to inform or misinform their culture. Language is transcultural across the world. The commonality is that it’s always able to be translated into your own. For example, French can be translated into English, English into French, French into Portuguese and Portuguese into English. Although Cree can be translated into English, how do we access the accurate translation? Google translate, despite having a multitude of language, is lacking indigenous dialects. This begs the question, what happens when language moves from one culture to another? Or in the instance of Space, what happens when art moves from one culture to another? What is carried across?

When I first came across Space at Mercer Union, it was organic and without context. It was only upon returning the following week that I understood that Space was its own installation. It still hangs on the East wall and is subject to change to another photograph again in late January 2019. It’s displayed behind a gate that you cannot move beyond. By doing so, an unspoken and perhaps intentional metaphor is revealed to the viewer - the history of Europeans massacring Indigenous peoples, trying so hard to push them away and lock them up on their own land. 

Using Format