While popular culture can often shape how women are perceived in the negative, many of the women featured in “Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” reveal the positive dimensions to celebrity.
The show’s focal point is a two-channel video projection featured prominently at the gallery entrance, a kind of patchwork quilt of video clips featuring female comedians, dancers and singers. That piece, “Do I Look Like a Lady? (Comedians and Singers),” is a Greatest Hits of Black Womanhood, featuring performances — Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Wanda Sykes, Whitney Houston — that pop up at various times on the gallery wall. In songs, comedy routines and dance numbers, these video clips create a rich tapestry of what it means to be a black woman. As one voice fades, another takes its place, hinting at the interconnectedness and influence of these women.
Their performances are inspiring, hilarious, willful, even shocking, and “Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities” gives them back the autonomy and power the culture at large so often strips away. In a series of newer silkscreens with mirrored elements — to also encourage viewers to see themselves in the work — Thomas homes in on the stars of the 1985 film “The Color Purple,” an influential film in the artist’s life.
The exhibition operates on two frequencies: cozy and cacophonous.
On one hand, there are the comfortable hangouts Thomas has created in the gallery space; mock living rooms with rugs onto which patterned pillows and ottomans and plants have been placed, giving a distinctive consciousness-raising, let-your-hair-down, Seventies vibe. Visitors are encouraged to sit in these ersatz living rooms to watch the installation videos on view, or read one of the many female-centric books stacked on the rug: “Beloved,” “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” “Jazz,” “The Color Purple.” While galleries and museums can often be intimidating spaces for viewers that they are encouraged to move decisively through, Thomas’ welcoming ambiance invites her audience to sit and stay awhile.
Like so much of Thomas’ video work, which unfolds on multiple screens, her living rooms are collages: of texture, of pattern, of ideas. Collage is central to Thomas’ vision, as an expression of the scattered, patchwork consciousness of our 21st-century brains, but also an acknowledgment of the many voices and ideas coming together to form a culture and identity.
On the cacophonous end of the spectrum are the videos themselves, booming, bouncing off the walls, their soundtracks often bleeding into other areas of the gallery space. With the gallery’s dim lighting and the constantly changing visuals, the effect can be slightly disorienting, overwhelming, as in the close-up images of four women, including Eartha Kitt, singing “Angelitos Negros,” a video which Thomas dramatically edits, focusing in on the eyes and mouths of the singers, as if striving for even more intimacy and connection.
Like a teenager’s bedroom plastered with beloved heroes, this exhibition is a reminder of how definitive, how emotional our relationship to pop culture can be: We see ourselves in it, and shape our own identities through it.
“Mickalene Thomas: Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities”
Through May 20. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. $3 suggested donation. Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, 440 Westview Drive S.W., Atlanta. 404-270-5607, www.museum.spelman.edu.
Bottom line: This inspiring exhibition centered on influential black women benefits from its topicality.