Mickalene Thomas on Black beauty, eroticism and power

Mickalene Thomas’ four-city exhibition series ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ at Lévy Gorvy galleries is a deep-dive into the power of the Black female body

Mickalene Thomas
Left: Jet Blue #31, 2021, Rhinestones, acrylic paint, mixed media paper and archival pigment prints on museum paper mounted on dibond with mahoganny and silver leaf frame Right: Jet Blue #27, 2021, Rhinestones, acrylic paint, oil pastel, mixed media paper and archival pigment prints on museum paper mounted on dibond with walnut and silver leaf frame, both by Mickalene Thomas.
(Image credit: © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS))

To say that Mickalene Thomas is having a moment in 2021 is surely an understatement. The Brooklyn-based artist’s highly anticipated international exhibition, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ – a four-part multi-site presentation that sees Thomas unveil work in Lévy Gorvy galleries in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong – is currently more than halfway through. Featuring interconnected bodies of work that range from paintings and illustrations to video pieces, the shows expand on Thomas’ decades-long study of the Black female body as a vehicle of power, eroticism, agency and inspiration. 

‘The timing and scale of this exhibition meant that I needed to work on multiple different bodies of work simultaneously, within the context of our timeline,’ recalls Thomas. ‘Because the locations are so disparate, the exhibition was just as much about creating the bodies of work themselves based on the cultural audience as well as the social and political context currently in each city, which had a major influence.’

Mickalene Thomas in the studio, New York 2021.

Mickalene Thomas in the studio, New York 2021. © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

(Image credit: Tatijana Shoan)

The exhibition has been designed to suit each of its four locations. For the kick-off in New York in early September, Thomas debuted her latest large-scale Jet paintings, all inspired by vintage pin-ups from Jet magazine, known for its central role to Black American life since its beginnings in 1952. The anonymous pin-ups have been recontextualised by Thomas, using a diverse range of material techniques including silkscreen, oil, acrylic and rhinestones to celebrate their beauty, strength and individuality. In these works, Thomas not only co-opts the formal language of the avant-garde movement from the 19th and 20th centuries to convey freedom, fluidity and experimentation, she also inserts and emphasises the political paradigm of Black liberation – a true vanguard of American culture.

The narrative continues in London, where the second part of the series shines a brighter light on the historical context of the source material. Seven new Jet Blue paintings see Thomas use archival imagery from Jet and create a refreshed dialogue about beauty and identity against outdated cultural notions. These historic images hold an added significance since Thomas, who usually works with subjects she is intimately familiar with, grew up in the 1970s, and her adolescence has had such an overarching influence on her oeuvre. Thomas also debuts a film created with her life partner, collaborator and muse, Raquel Chevremont, titled Je T’aime Trois (2018). 

Mickalene Thomas, February 1971, 2021

Mickalene Thomas, February 1971, 2021. Rhinestones, acrylic and oil paint on canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame. New York

(Image credit: © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS))

Thomas has dedicated her practice to depicting Black beauty, femininity and power in a way that liberates these concepts from cultural oppression and marginalisation. Dialoguing with a beacon of Black American culture like Jet reinforces her commitment to making both historical and contemporary celebrations of Black identity, femininity, queerness and transgressiveness more visible. 

‘The sequential presentation of the shows was crucial so that a full narrative could be established, [and] viewers could identify a journey,’ she continues. ‘The shows are separate – they have different aesthetic formalities with different references – but together, they form a thematically coherent and consistent thread related to the Black female body that stretches across the different cities in each country.’

Rhinestones, glitter, acrylic and oil paint on, canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame.

Mickalene Thomas, March 1976, 2021. Rhinestones, glitter, acrylic and oil paint on, canvas mounted on wood panel with mahogany frame. New York

(Image credit: © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS))

With the third and fourth chapters of the exhibition concurrently opening in Paris and Hong Kong in October, viewers have the chance to experience the full spectrum of Thomas’ vision in the flesh and virtually as well. 

‘Having the works online allows viewers from anywhere to visit each of these cities through the installation videos featured, so the narration of this artistic journey could be seen by people in more than just a few countries,’ Thomas concludes.


Mickalene Thomas, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, on view at Lévy Gorvy galleries in New York, London, Paris (until 13 November 2021) and Hong Kong (until 15 December 2021), levygorvy.com

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.