“The moment I started photographing my mother was the moment my work completely changed,” Thomas acknowledged in a 2012 interview.
Thomas, who attended the press preview for MUSE at the Henry Art Gallery earlier this month, was frank and eloquent about her inspirations and accomplishments. She was also forthright about the changes in the art world that have allowed a queer African-American woman like herself to share her talents and gain a place in the pantheon.
Dressed in basic black, with her hair plainly braided, she’s in striking physical contrast to the opulent, allusion-packed images of African-American womanhood that she creates in her photographs (including images of herself that transform her beyond all recognition).
“Taking on these women as these very glamorous, assured, sexy subjects, I think it all goes back to my mother,” Thomas says on her website. “It was just her charisma. I really started thinking about women like her, and I wanted to celebrate Black femininity and that sexuality in a different way.”
MUSE, which started as a book (published in 2015 by Aperture) consists of work that Thomas, who thinks of herself primarily as a painter, initially had no intention of displaying publicly.
“I was always thinking about the paintings when I was making these photographs,” she said at the press preview. “I wanted to frame them like I was painting.”
They’re no mere by-product, however. They’re a whole oeuvre unto themselves, numbering more than 2,000 items. Anyone who saw Thomas’ terrific contributions to “Figuring History,” the popular Seattle Art Museum show earlier this year, won’t want to miss this.
Thomas shoots on film and uses no digital manipulations to create her final product. Instead, all the art and artifice — and there’s plenty of both — are created in her studio set-up. You can see exactly how she does it in the centerpiece of MUSE: a large installation that anchors the show. In it, Thomas, born in 1971, has recreated a life-size replica of a living room from her childhood.
Shopping at Goodwill and the Salvation Army, she found the furniture and furnishings she needed. The deeper she got into it, she says, the “more personalized” it became. She upholstered the furniture with fabric — flowered curtains, for instance — that came from the home of her grandmother and other members of the family.
“They become their own works of art,” she says of her repurposed thrift store finds.
At the center of the installation at the Henry is a TV set playing a 23-minute video, “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” which is the key to the whole exhibit.
Sandra Bush battled sickle-cell anemia over much of her adult life; she died in late 2012. During her mother’s last rounds of illness, Thomas refrained from photographing her, feeling it might to be painful for her to be portrayed in her diminished state. Her mother asked her about it, then said she wanted her daughter to keep portraying her.
Thomas recorded video interviews — the basis of “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman.” When Thomas’ agent saw Thomas’ homemade video, she thought the content was powerful but the camerawork too obviously amateurish. The artist hired a professional camera crew and, with her mother’s cooperation, restaged the interviews.
Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale — a friend of Thomas’s from her years in Portland, Oregon, where she studied theater arts and pre-law in the late 1980s and early 1990s — found her the music that’s used as the film’s score. The resulting short film, which features plentiful archival footage (including some of a very young Thomas and her mother strutting the catwalk together), was purchased and aired by HBO.
Thomas’ questions to her mother are probing and direct: “Do you think about dying?” “What was it like growing up in a religious household for you?” “In what ways did my father abuse you?” “How do you want to be remembered?”
There’s a stoic candor in the way Bush delivers her answers. She faces the facts of her life head-on, acknowledging her mistakes and her misfortunes. Talking about her illness-ravaged beauty, she gives a light sigh: “When I look in the mirror, when I see myself, it’s like: ‘This is not me.’ I just walk past it.”
The abuse she suffered at her first husband’s hands included being forced to have sex at gunpoint. After their divorce, Bush took up with a man that Thomas and her older brother initially liked (Thomas was eight years old at the time), but who wound up in jail for drug dealing.
“Do you have any regrets?” Thomas asks her mother.
Bush’s steady reply: “I regret when I started my drug addiction.”
Bush eventually stopped both her drug and cigarette habits cold. She simply became “fed up,” she says. “I wanted my life back. I wanted my children back.”
After quitting drugs, Bush found comfort in Buddhism (Thomas was raised Buddhist). Mother and daughter moved beyond their family turmoil when Thomas was attending the Yale School of Art. Her advisors there felt she should take a photography course. Thomas, focused on her painting, was resistant at first. But some sort of floodgate opened.
“Photography taught me how to look at my world in a clear way,” Thomas tells fellow artist Carrie Mae Weems in MUSE the book. “I started photographing myself and my mother — that’s how she came into my work. … I began to look at people.”
Thomas’ flamboyantly staged photographs make references to Corbet, Manet and the Black-is-beautiful aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some of the photographs are studies of female nudes. Her mother was her first model willing to be photographed in the nude and volunteered to do it, in fact.
Thomas, early on, also served as her own model and, in her Mary J. Blige wig and other guises, was quite the chameleon. These self-portraits, including “Quanikah Goes Up,” are friendly nods to photographer Cindy Sherman, who for decades has taken on dozens of identities in her photographs of herself.
In “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” one of Thomas’ final questions to her mother is: “What does it feel like to be a muse in my work, the subject of my work?”
Bush’s answer may move you to tears.
“Oh, it’s a great feeling,” she says. “It makes me feel like I have accomplished something. … When you started as an artist, that was when I started to love art too, and now it’s my way of getting close to you. … That’s when I knew I would do anything for you.”