Inspired by Her Mother, Mickalene Thomas’ New Show Is Her Most Personal Yet

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Mickalene Thomas Better Nights Dior Miami
Better Nights© Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of Bass Gallery

When artist Mickalene Thomas discovered a box of Polaroids belonging to her mother, she decided to build an exhibition and installation inspired by the people and lives she saw in the photographs

The daughter of a minister and his devout wife, Sandra Bush entered into a disastrous marriage immediately after high school. After giving birth to Mickalene Thomas and her brother in the 1970s, ‘Mama Bush’, as she became known, divorced her husband and raised her two children in her hometown of Camden, New Jersey. She resolutely pursued a career in modelling in New York City when black women were finally given the opportunity to cross the colour line, while simultaneously hosting house parties and theatre productions to raise money for sickle cell anemia, which she had been afflicted with since birth. 

After a second ill-fated romance with a drug dealer, Mama Bush fell victim to addiction, entered rehab, and rebuilt her life as a practising Buddhist. “There was this complexity to her life,” Thomas tells AnOther while taking a break from Better Nights, the immersive art experience inspired by a box of Polaorids of Mama Bush and friends made in the late 1970s, which recently opened during Art Basel in Miami Beach.

“She wasn’t a party girl. She was quite reclusive and shy, but she was also very warm and giving,” Thomas remembers. “Even if you just came over to say hello, she made you feel like you are a part of the family. She was very much a matriarch and people wanted to share their lives with her on many levels. She had this great magnetism.”

It was an energy Thomas has observed, inherited, and invoked throughout her life, informing everything from how she lives to how she makes art. Towards the end of her life, Mama Bush became Thomas’ muse, inspiring a series of rhinestone-encrusted collage paintings, a video, and the short film, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother, which premiered just two months before her death in 2012.

When Thomas later received the box of vintage Polaroids of her mother, fresh memories surfaced along with a host of questions about the images themselves. “I hadn’t gone though my own personal mourning process during that time,” Thomas says.

Thomas did what she does best: she channelled these memories and her feelings into her art, creating a communal experience that celebrates the collective idea of family in all its multi-splendoured forms for Better Nights. For the exhibition, Thomas has recreated a 1970s-style home replete with faux wood panelling, wallpaper, and custom upholstered furnishings featuring her signature textiles. 

The walls are adorned with Thomas’ work, alongside that of friends and contemporaries including Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, Lyle Ashton Harris, John Edmonds, Xaviera Simmons, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, among others. Then, for the pièce de résistance, Thomas invited artists and musicians like Jody Watley, Meshell Ndegeocello, Mashonda Tifrere, Papi Juice, CHIKA, and more to perform in the space. 

“Last night we had QUIÑ, a young musician, perform and she was phenomenal. The energy of the room, the experimental sound, her almost Sade-esque vocals, were electrifying. It was a beautiful moment: the communal collective experience something rare,” Thomas says.

“It’s like you’re in someone’s living room and we’re all in the same house. Our orbit is a circle and we’re all circling each other. I tell emerging artists, ‘If you’re here and I’m here then we’re at the same level, period.’ There’s no hierarchy. There’s no degree of separation here and that’s how I see my world.”

Mickalene Thomas: Better Nights is at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach until September 27, 2020.