Mickalene Thomas curates Tête-à-Tête at Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Photographs by black artists explore power and the gaze.
The woman in Xaviera Simmons’s photograph Untitled (Pink) stands in the middle of a forest. Wearing a short pink dress, her breasts exposed, she brandishes a long stick at a “monster” that’s probably a fallen tree. Like a ’70s blaxploitation heroine—both sex symbol and action star—she is styled and staged to appeal to the straight-male gaze. Simmons suggests the real power, and perhaps the only real threat, lies with the viewer.
In “tête-à-tête,” artist Mickalene Thomas curates photography by African and African-American artists. The show grew out of a January discussion at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that included Thomas, Simmons, Derrick Adams and Clifford Owens. According to the exhibition statement, the event inspired Thomas to consider “how a conversation is transformed into a visual expression”—which explains why so many of the works on view employ performance. But the show is too small and unfocused to accommodate Thomas’s stated concern with race as well.
Owens obscures his upper body with a cloud of white powder in the first of two images from Anthology (Nsenga Knight)—an apparent metaphor for society’s concealment of the complexity of black male identity. When he emerges in the second image, gripping a knife, however, his actions are recast as defiant. He isn’t a victim: He cut open the bag of powder himself.
Thomas’s “Polaroid Series” depicts the black women who model for her well-known ’70s-inspired rhinestone-studded paintings. It’s intriguing to compare how the artist’s muses look in their street clothes to their appearances once fully dolled up for her female gaze. In “tête-à-tête,” the question of who wields power—subject or viewer—is ever-present.
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