Back in the summer of 2013, while collectors were scouring the annual art fair in Basel, Switzerland, for hot trends and up-and-coming talents, Mickalene Thomas was holed up a few blocks away in a space stuck in the 1970s.
The walls were faux-wood-paneled, the floors a combination of linoleum, wood, and carpeting, the ceiling faux copper. There was a bar with hanging lights, and furniture covered in clashing vintage fabrics. On display were paintings and photographs by Thomas and some of her artist friends, including Wangechi Mutu, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Duron Jackson, and Derrick Adams. There was music playing, too—hits of the period by black women such as Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, and Diana Ross. Thomas called the installation Better Days.
It was but one of the immersive environments Thomas has become known for—works that have earned her a place in museums around the world and steadily increasing prices at auction. Better Days was inspired by parties her mother Sandra Bush, a former fashion model, threw with friends to raise funds for sickle cell anemia research. “I was reimagining a particular time in my childhood,” Thomas says. “I was thinking of leisure, black families, and black life.”
The installation was the talk of Art Basel—Solange Knowles performed there, Simon de Pury DJ’d, and it became a refuge for a crowd usually resigned to conventional dealer dinners. And since it came fresh on the heels of a much praised exhibition of Thomas’s work at the Brooklyn Museum, Better Days helped cement the artist as a presence on the international art world stage.