"When I started photographing, my mother was the only person who would pose nude for me," says Mickalene Thomas. "I didn't ask her to. I invited her to my studio and said, 'Just bring what you want me to photograph you in.' So she brought this really beautiful red negligee."
She motions to a portrait titled Madame Mama Bush. In the photograph, Sandra Bush, a former runway model, reclines on a couch in a pose reminiscent of one of Matisse's nudes. The fabrics draped around her—the revealing red nightgown, the vintage floral upholstery, and six different types of animal prints—tell a story of domesticity tinged with wildness.
"I mean, look at my mother," laughs Thomas. "She's incredible, right?"
Thomas is best known for her collage-like monumental paintings of Black women like the ones that recently appeared in Figuring History at Seattle Art Museum (alongside works by Kerry James Marshall and Robert Colescott). To create these paintings, Thomas works from reference photographs, first staging her models with distinctive furniture and objects.
In MUSE, on view at Henry Art Gallery through September 30, Thomas's photographs are exhibited as artworks in their own right. They are both visually striking and astonishingly intimate, revealing the kinds of details that can only be captured by the camera. In one photo, Thomas points out a faint indentation on the ankle of a model who has removed her socks. "I just love that kind of thing," she gushes.
As the exhibition title suggests, MUSE is a visual love letter to the people who inspire her—both the women who appear as her subjects and the multigenerational roster of other artists who constitute her artistic community. In a part of the exhibition Thomas calls tête-à-tête, works by these other artists are displayed alongside her photographs. She speaks of these artists in the same adoring terms as her own models: "What I love about Deana Lawson's practice is how she is able to go into the personal spaces of strangers and get them to open up to her."
But Thomas's deepest reverence is reserved for her first muse, her mother, who passed away in 2012 after a period of illness. Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a documentary Thomas produced about her mother as she was dying, plays in a loop on a vintage television set in an installation full of fabric-covered furnishings inspired by the artist's childhood home.
"One day, I was at her house helping her put on her makeup, and she said, 'You never photograph me anymore because I'm not as beautiful,'" Thomas remembers. "I thought she wouldn't want to work with me anymore because she was so frail, but she did."
The film is Thomas's way of capturing something of the woman behind the images they made together. "When I see famous paintings like the Mona Lisa, I'm always like, 'Who are these women?' I wanted to speak about our relationship and who she was."