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Mickalene Thomas Reflects on 10 Years of “30 Americans”

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This is your last week to see “30 Americans” on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA. It is the 10th anniversary presentation of the major exhibition, featuring the work of 30 artists from the Rubell Family Collection. Curated by Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, the show includes pieces by Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renée Green, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Rozeal, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and Purvis Young.

Traveling the U.S. for the past decade, each iteration of “30 Americans” offers a new combination of conversation, dialogue, and discovery. “It is a cultural phenomenon that has helped catapult the nascent careers of a number of the included artists, while also influencing and encouraging other artists and collectors across the country to pursue their individual visions,” said Shaw.

“30 Americans,” 2019. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo by Sean Murray.

Whitewall caught up with one of the participating artists, Mickalene Thomas, just after the new year, to hear from her about what it has meant to be a part of the blockbuster show that’s now been seen by over a million people.

WHITEWALL: “30 Americans” is celebrating its tenth anniversary at the Barnes Foundation. What has it been like to be a part of this touring show?

Photo by Steve Benisty.

MICKALENE THOMAS: It’s very special. Each space is different, which is exciting. It changes the dialogue and conversation with the work depending on how it’s installed and what it’s next to.

I would have loved to be that nine-year-old or 14-year-old walking into the Barnes, seeing the 30 artists that are talking about all these ideas. For me, it’s like “Sensation” at the Brooklyn Museum [1999]. That’s what “30 Americans” is for this generation. When “Sensation” came to the Brooklyn Museum, I was young and so impressionable and hungry. I can only imagine walking into an institution and seeing the work of all of these artists for the first time, how thrilling that is and groundbreaking.

“30 Americans,” 2019. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo by Sean Murray.

WW: Walking through the show at the Barnes, it was interesting to think about how the artists’ careers have evolved since the show first opened in 2008. I wonder, for you, is it also a chance to reflect?

MT: Yeah, looking back, I was going on 39, and cusping 40. And now I’m going on 49, cusping 50. That’s a turning point. It’s a lot to think about, not only within my art but within a new decade. Looking back, I’ve done some of those things I wrote down as goals and it’s exciting to say, “I’m happy, I achieved those things.” I said I wanted to show at the Brooklyn Museum, and I did that. I said I wanted to show in Paris, I’ve done that. I wanted to travel, I’ve done that. I wanted to have a reputable gallery, I’ve done that. I wanted to make a film, I’ve done that. I didn’t know my first film would be a documentary about losing my mother. But who knows what your art will be about? You take your life, you look at it, and you pull from it. You use the tools around you and you find a creative outlet and you make sense of it.

“30 Americans,” 2019. The Barnes Foundation, installation view. Image © The Barnes Foundation. Photo by Sean Murray.

Looking back at “30 Americans,” it was a great opportunity. The Rubells—it’s incredible there are still patrons of their caliber in the art world. And I have a lot of respect for them, for what they are doing, for what they are creating, for what they believe in, and how they support artists.

WW: Take us back to the work on view in this edition of “30 Americans,” Baby I Am Ready Now. Can you tell us about making that in 2007?

Mickalene Thomas
Baby I Am Ready Now
Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami

MT:  I was thinking about when I first did that painting. I made that painting for a two-person show with Shinique Smith at Caren Golden gallery in New York. I was listening a lot to Millie Jackson and this song Baby I’m Ready Now. I had just finished a photo shoot with my friend, Aisha Bell. She was my height, 5’ 10”, very striking, she’s an artist. I remember her very powerful, very strong, sitting there just like, “I’m ready for the world.” That was the largest painting I did to date at that time. I remember the Rubells saying, “I can’t believe you did that in such a small space.”

They started buying my work right after the Studio Museum in Harlem show in 2003. They came to my studio after that and purchased a lot of work. They were able to help me support myself while I worked as a manager at G-Star. I remember them buying these paintings and I remember making the choice of paying my rent for six months so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I remember how invigorating that felt, how empowered I felt.

Photo by Steve Benisty

I felt so in control of my destiny—in control of how I was going to conquer being an artist. They gave me the agency. I think that’s what they do. They give you this pat on the back. That’s what good patrons do.

WW: “30 Americans” has been seen by over a million people. What’s it like to be a part of a show that has that kind of reach?

MT: It is life changing. It’s fulfilling for me to know that the comments I get on Instagram, the DMs I get from different mothers or fathers that say how happy their daughters were, their nieces were, standing in front of my work—that’s immeasurable. That’s priceless. When someone tells you how it makes them feel, it warms me. It makes me feel like I’ve done something.

It’s really satisfying, to know that I’m a part of this group. I’m one of 30. We will be the “30 Americans” and that’s beautiful. It’s this family where, most of them, I’ve known personally on many levels outside of “30 Americans,” and many of them I’ve become closer with because of “30 Americans.” Henry Taylor I met because of “30 Americans.” Noah Davis, before he passed, we became friends. And the late Barkley Hendricks, prior to his passing, he and his wife became really close friends.

Many others I knew prior and am still close with. Nina Chanel Abney and I just spent New Year’s together. Kehinde [Wiley] and I have known each other for many years, he’s like a brother to me. Shinique and I are very close. Kalup Linzy and I used to be roommates. Xaviera [Simmons] and I are very close. Lorna [Simpson] and I are very good friends. It’s really beautiful to know that there’s a lot of crossover professionally and personally and support and love for each other—cheerleading and happiness for success and growth for everyone.

WW: Which makes me think, for the past few years, you’ve made a point to include other artists, in particular emerging artists, in your shows. Why has that been important for you?

MT: For a period of time I was getting quite bored with, every two years, showing at a gallery. I was thinking about friendship and what mentorship is—how does one create a legacy? I can show and sell and that’s great, but that’s just making money. What am I doing with that?

I started looking around and thinking about when I was in grad school and when I was in undergrad, what was exciting to me was the groups and organizations I was building, curating shows, and involving my friends, and creating. We were doing it together. We were all at the same table, and I wasn’t by myself, I wasn’t alone.

I’m a loner but I also like to share. I realized that was an innate part of who I was. I needed to figure out how to be me and create a community within these opportunities I had for myself.

So, when I started having these museum shows, I was like, “Well, I’m not a man, I’m a female, it’s not about my ego. I can do these museum shows, put up the paintings, and so what?” How does that really create change or transformation on a demographic overall?

Here I am, this black, queer woman from Camden, NJ, and I’m showing in these spaces, but what is that really saying? So, I started thinking about collective communities and the demographics the institutions say they want to include. If they really wanted to have inclusivity, how do you do that? How do you bring people inside the museums? You start showing them.

So, like, when the Baltimore Museum of Art decided to give a commission to me, I said, “I can put myself on the wall and that’s great, but why not share this space with Baltimore artists?” Then you really get Baltimore artists to be in this conversation and feel like this is their museum. Then they want to come, bring people there, and be a part of the program.

WW: So now your practice is reflecting your life, your community.  

MT: There’s enough here for all of us. If I have the opportunity, there’s enough room. It’s so much more exciting to be in collaboration with other people. That’s like dancing. You know, you can do it by yourself, but when you have the opportunity to dance with other people, that’s great, too.

That’s how I see art. If you have the opportunity, I’m going to bring as many people to the fold as I can. My partner Racquel [Chevremont] has a lot to do with it, too. In 2020 we’re going to slow it down a little, reset, do some things on a different level. We have some things in store for a couple of great curatorial projects that we’re doing for 2020 and 2021 that I’m very excited about.

And that’s what’s needed, as far as artists within the black community. We have to do things a little differently. We need to create our own rhythm. There are new models. We don’t always have to follow the majority. That’s not why we’re here. We are supposed to do the alternative. There’s a reason why I’m queer and black and Buddhist—because I’m not supposed to conform. The universe is telling me that there is a different rhythm.



“30 Americans” is on view at the Barnes Foundation through January 12. Mickalene Thomas’ current exhibitions include “A Moment’s Pleasure” at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through May 2021), “Better Nights” at The Bass in Miami (through September 27, 2020), “Femmes Noires” at CAC New Orleans (through June 14, 2020), and “découverte” at Baldwin Gallery in Aspen (through February 7, 2020).



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