‘We Are Not Just Defined by Hard Labor’: Artist Mickalene Thomas Disrupts Narratives Around Black Womanhood at The Broad

Mickalene Thomas and Angela Manuel-Davis at the opening reception for "All About Love." Photography by Marc Patrick/ and courtesy of The Broad.

Mickalene Thomas’s new exhibition "All About Love" is a commanding survey of the New Jersey-born artist's work over the last 20 years. Hailed for her collages, paintings, and interdisciplinary efforts—which figure Black women conceptually, materially, historically, and metaphysically—Thomas has dedicated her practice to an ethic of love and acts of loving. Organized by The Broad, which serves as the first home to the internationally traveling exhibition, and Hayward Gallery, the show is composed of nearly 100 works mapped as a series of installations, with each gallery fashioning itself into a particular epoch wherein both object and effect offer a container for Thomas’s inquiries.

The opening was celebrated last night in an event presented by Dior, and drawing in notable guests across creative disciplines—including Quinta Brunson, Law Roach, Lauren Halsey, and Yara Shahidi. Between drinks, a DJ set, and performance from a New Jersey step team, attendees browsed the plethora of art on display.

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Maya #10, 2017.

The exhibition opens with a 2003 triptych featuring Thomas’s mother, Sandra, arranged against a version of the family's '70s living room. Its crescendo is Thomas’s newest assemblage collages and neons, which continue to stretch her interest in gesture and figuration. "All About Love" reveals Thomas's role as a dynamic storyteller utilizing tone, materials, site, and composition to explore Black womanhood, desire, and being.

Both bell hooks and Los Angeles serve as framing devices, situating each in some of Thomas’s earliest formal and philosophical investments. In a conversation ahead of the exhibition opening to the public, Thomas said, “I just always looked at LA as this place where I could be conceptual and not be rooted into one system of thought that was just, 'Oh, she makes this thing, she's defined as X.' I was so much more than that with my ideas, and I feel like LA is always the one that's looking at my work, my trajectory, my art, and me as an artist and embracing it.”

Mickalene Thomas, "All About Love" (Installation View), 2024. Photography by Joshua White/ Image courtesy of the artist and The Broad.

As both the opening site for "All About Love" and one of the first cities to embrace her work, Los Angeles occupies a particular position within Thomas’s practice. Her 2006/07 wrestler series "An Imitation of Love, Brawlin’ Spitfire Two" debuted as a solo exhibition at Vielmetter in Los Angeles in 2007, ushering in a more expansive view of Thomas’s investments in Black queer desire, iconography, and dynamic portraiture. Moreover, funk, assemblage, and an egalitarian use of materials are crucial to the art of California and to Thomas. Here, "All About Love" reminds and reframes the dialogue between Thomas and the West Coast. 

The exhibition title is derived from bell hooks, the Black feminist philosopher, writer, and professor most known for her 2000 book All About Love: New Visions. The text is a deconstruction of the socio-historic construction of love in the West and an intervention into that often demonstrative and brutalizing framework. Hooks proposes love as “an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

Mickalene Thomas, Afro Goddess Looking Forward, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and The Broad.

Thomas’s "All About Love" is a visual schema for love as an action-oriented ethic, a way of being regardless of relation, a motivating force that forges connection, consideration, and fullness within the visual field. Love is composition; love is vantage; love is the current rolling through. As Thomas noted, “I chose 'All About Love' because it was all of those things with my personal life, my professional life, the relationship with my other sitters, what I'm conveying in the work, what I want people to see, how I want them to see us as incredible Black women—that we are not just defined by hard labor or [as] caretakers, [that] we could be desired, and that we desire.” 

Thomas’s "All About Love" is a meditation of sorts, certainly on love but also the particular realms in which love lives and can be wielded, through a deep consideration of place, movement, and a tending to Black queer possibilities. 

"All About Love" by Mickalene Thomas will be on view from May 25 through September 29, 2024 at The Broad in Los Angeles.