Things started to change in the 1970s. After decades of intense struggle, the black middle class became more visible, ushering in new attitudes, decor and music as the smooth sounds of Lionel Richie, Tina Turner and George Benson reached new audiences. Locally, New Orleans East was becoming an enclave for black professionals as Allen Toussaint and Patti LaBelle's "Lady Marmalade" hit ruled the city's airwaves courtesy of DJ's like WYLD-FM's legendary Sister Love. Mickalene Thomas was born in New Jersey in 1971, but her work conveys black America's rapidly evolving 1970s notions of beauty, sexuality and female empowerment in ways that seem especially relevant today.
In this Newcomb Art Museum expo, Thomas' mixed-media portraits evoke old Ebony magazine scenes that explore the lives of women reinventing themselves at a time when fulfillment and self-realization were pressing new priorities. Here smooth-jazz decor mingles exoticism with baroque Americana in portraits like Shinique: Now I Know, where a svelte black odalisque reclines amid a sea of colorful pillows. Like a suburban seraglio furnished by Pier 1, it pulsates with cubist electricity as she gazes over her shoulder at us, though exactly what she knows remains elusive. Lovely Six Foota is a view of a statuesque woman whose seductive comportment and regal demeanor amid her leopard print chairs and Diana Ross LPs convey a whimsical surety about who, and how, she is. Fast forward to the present, and Thomas' Thinking of You (pictured) photocollage portrait of New Orleans-based pop diva Solange employs more cubist baroque motifs in an insightful view of a chanteuse who embodies a perfect fusion of edgy social commentary and Mona Lisa mystery. Even so, Thomas' often glitteringly exuberant rhinestone-studded collage portraits excel at exploring her subjects' colorfully carnivalesque qualities of "otherness" in ways that ultimately reaffirm the universal feelings and aspirations that all people share. Her unique genius is seen in the way their buoyant candor and charisma have made so many people feel so unexpectedly at home in their world.