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Mickalene Thomas Directs Stunning Documentary For Her Mother And Muse

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If you know the name Mickalene Thomas, you're familiar with the artist's iconic brand of glammed-up, glittering portraits, rendering beautiful black women as goliath forces of nature whose edges ooze into the textural patterns of their ensembles, accessories and interior decor. You may not know, however, that many of the women depicted are actually based on photographs of Thomas' mother and muse, Sandra Bush.

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Mickalene Thomas, Sandra Shes A Beauty, C Print, 2009
©Mickalene Thomas


Bush passed away in 2012, but in the final year of her life, Thomas conducted a series of interviews with her mother discussing her favorite songs, her struggles with drug addiction and her lifelong dream of becoming a model. Thomas incorporated the footage into a touching 24-minute documentary entitled "Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman," a striking look at the person who's visage has adorned so many gallery and museum walls.

Thomas' directorial debut, like her paintings, creates a semblance so alive it vibrates. While her painted works incorporate exotic fabrics and bold colors, Thomas folds her mother's style, taste and cadence into her moving portrait, showing how environment shapes the subject. The documentary, which will air for approximately six weeks on HBO in celebration of Black History Month and Women's History Month, is a touching tribute to a clearly stellar woman.

We reached out to Thomas to learn more about the project. See the first two minutes of the film below and continue reading for Thomas' interview.

What was your motivation for this project?

The goal was to make a project for my show at the Brooklyn Museum, an art piece that would coincide with the other bodies of work I was presenting. I wanted it to be a sort of anchor for the show, to depict this story behind this particular sitter, muse, person, that I had depicted in my work for so many years. I wanted the audience to get a closer insight of who this individual was. I wanted a more personal and vulnerable perception. There were a lot of challenges because my mother was in and out of the hospital during that period. In the video you'll see in some I have a handheld camera because sometimes it wasn't appropriate for me to bring a crew up in there.

When were these interviews filmed?

I started filming my mother in early 2012, and we filmed for about six months.

Was there anything particular that you found you could achieve with film that you couldn't in painting?

There is, the time, the actual time and speed of things. I think that's why I like video and film in relationship to photography and painting. You are capturing in realtime how things exist in the world. With photography, you've captured a moment time, it's that moment only, and in painting, you play with it, you manipulate how time is presented. It's about fantasy and illusion and the creation of desire.

That's not to say these things aren't put into film, because they are, but that's what's so exciting about going to the theater. You can get lost in these moments that seem so real even though they aren't. They take you to a different place because you believe it. I like that tangible nuance in film. I've always enjoyed film, but I'm a little afraid of it because I think it is very powerful as a medium. You have the visuals, the sound, the colors, all of these things coming at you and they transport you physically so it becomes this surround sound, virtual reality.

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© Mickalene Thomas


Do you have a favorite moment of the film?

The beginning was so important to me, more important than anything else. I really want to make this comparison, slowly allowing you to discover who this person was and the magic of different parts of her -- her body, the nape of the neck. I wanted you to feel her, and engage you so much that no matter how dark or vulnerable or exposed or uncomfortable you feel by some of the things that are later said, you're still there since the beginning has you convinced that this woman is amazing.

What initially led you to use your mother as a muse?

I started using her back in graduate school. I started thinking about our relationship and wanted to find a way of communicating with her. My photo teacher encouraged me to photograph her and I approached her to photograph her as Pam Grier. I know she always loved Pam Grier and when she had her hair in an afro people would tell her she looked like her. I think she liked her because she was a tall, beautiful black woman with an interesting story. I asked if I could photograph her and she was really surprised, especially when I showed her the crocheted negligee that I wanted her to wear. She went for it, to my surprise. It was fun and exciting. I was like "Wow, I'm really photographing my mother in this negligee in her bedroom and she's sprawled out on the bed!" It's really allowed us as mother and daughter to become more comfortable with ourselves as people and as friends. It was more about the process of making the art than the actual end product.

What is one lesson you've learned from your mother?

To love. She taught me to love, to be compassionate towards people. That's one thing she's given me. The tools to know how to be compassionate. Some people think they know how, but when it comes down to it, it's something you don't innately have. It's something that you learn.

happy birthday

© Mickalene Thomas



"Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman" premieres Monday, February 24 at 9 PM. The documentary will run on HBO for approximately 6-8 weeks.

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