Fashion magazines give us an opportunity to imagine a life more glamorous than our own. But the reality is that the fantasy on offer has been largely monolithic: usually white, often thin, and nearly always straight. Over the past two decades, artist Mickalene Thomas has set out to break those patterns.
From an art-historical perspective, Thomas, who began her career in photography in the early aughts, spotlights people who have traditionally been relegated to the margins. And now, in her latest work, she’s inviting her subjects—people of color, often queer—to experience new possibilities of representation. “I think it’s important for us to see ourselves continually,” she tells me over Skype from her studio in north-western Connecticut, because “when you see yourself, that gives you a sense of power, of ownership and validation.” Reflecting on the fact that images of people like herself were hard to come by in the mainstream media when she was growing up, she continues, “I think this mirror[ed] image is so powerful and so important, that young girls have this desire and aspiration of what is possible and what they can become.”
Though Thomas has been celebrated in the art world for more than a decade, her profile within pop culture was raised after a collaboration with Solange Knowles on the art for her 2012 EP True. Since then, Thomas has been the subject of profiles and interviews, but she initially shied away from creating editorial work herself, even though she was asked, because the timeline of magazines didn’t mesh with her slower analog method of image-making. “There was a little fear inside of moving toward digital and what that [would mean] for my practice,” she explains. But eventually Thomas grew comfortable working digitally and found a group of collaborators whose expertise she admires and trusts that feeds her artwork, providing fodder for collages and paintings.
“When you see yourself, that gives you a sense of power, of ownership and validation.”
For the October issue, Bazaar invited the artist to create a series of images of her partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, a former model who has long collaborated with Thomas in the studio. On one level, these images are an ode to black love, but they’re also a siren’s call for a more diverse future—one in which queer, black, and brown people can imagine the radical possibilities of embracing their own beauty and agency to tell their own stories. The excitement comes “if you can capture what you’re seeing in that lens,” says Thomas. “It’s about the gaze in the eyes, the confidence of the model. It’s about the composition and that stillness of time of just knowing that this is it. That’s the look.”
One of the most exciting things about Thomas’s foray into mainstream fashion magazines as an author of images is that it marks a technical pivot in her career. Here, we see an artist with a high level of skill learning a new way of working. My hope is that this will inspire others in fashion to experiment with new, more inclusive—indeed expansive—ways of making as well.