Mickalene Thomas - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips
  • “The gaze in my work is unapologetically a Black woman’s gaze loving other Black women.”
    — Mickalene Thomas


    Mickalene Thomas is deliberately subversive in her art practice: she defies heteronormative discourse, redefines beauty, empowers women of colour, all the while blurring the divide between low and high art. Currently subject of a global solo show, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Thomas’ body of works and their chief concern of celebrating Black women has received extensive institutional attention, having been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art, and is collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    On Beauty


    ‘One of the things that really is a constant in my life is Jet Magazine and Beauty of the Week,’ says Thomas. i Referring to Jet Magazine and its adjunct publication The Beauty of Week, she has consistently drawn from these two publications to delve into her (re)creations of Black beauties. A regular fixture in African American homes, salons, beauty parlours, Jet Magazine was unrivalled in its representation of the Black community—one which was not well-represented at all in mainstream, predominantly white media—and to someone like Thomas, growing up, seeing Beauty of the Week was significant: ‘…And they’re in these bathing suits, sort of like these pageantries, but, that was like for me, this first notion of beauty.’ ii


    The artist continually highlights the importance of ‘being seen’ within a daily cultural context, a privilege which was very often denied to people of colour during her childhood. To fulfil this need to see herself (and figures like her), Thomas began to photograph her mother dressed as Pam Grier (Blaxploitation cinematic icon) or create self-portraits. The artist credits the Black model Naomi Sims with having implanted her need to probe beauty, having been one of the first figures in Thomas’ memory who was speaking on the behalf of Black women and their wellness, all the while redefining beauty itself. 


    "These women were defining another way how we will look at beauty. Because it’s not necessarily just the surface; it’s also the action. How they define themselves, and how they persevere. And how they withstand circumstance and obstacles. That’s always been something that I looked to for women that I’m celebrating in my work."
    — Mickalene Thomas


    Mickalene Thomas has mentioned in the past that she began her artistic career in Abstract Expressionism, though collage was always a permanent fixture in her practice. In graduate school, she enrolled in a photography class, and started to reconsider the Black body in media and the stereotypes around the notions of beauty. It was a combination of all these aspects that led her to reappropriate icons she found from her childhood: to not only seek collage as a method of creation but also as a mode of thinking to create multi-layered works. One such figures in Thomas’ collage works is Pam Grier, the first African American woman to star in an action movie: chief among them Coffy, snippets of which we can detect in Looking Up




    Movie stills featuring Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)



    Elevating the Every(wo)man


    A filmic superstar of the Blaxpoitation movement (a portmanteau of “Black” and “Exploitation”), Pam Grier was one of the first Black women in mainstream American media to be portrayed as a strong lead, and not relegated to mere caricature. In the movie Coffy, the actress plays the eponymous heroine, a vigilante who seeks revenge against a drug dealer. Coffy goes under various guises in pursuit of her revenge, one of which involves posing as a prostitute to lure a mob boss and drug pusher to their residences before killing them. This particular scene features Grier in a polka-dot, two-piece lingerie set, not unlike the one featured in the present work.


    Looking Up also belongs to Thomas’ She Works Hard for the Money Pin-Up Series, a reference to Donna Summer’s 1983 lead single of the same name (click to listen on Spotify). Inspired by an exhausted, overworked woman resting in a restaurant’s bathroom, Summer co-wrote the song with Michael Omartian in the eighties—the song soared the charts and remained #1 for three weeks in the Billboard R&B singles chart when it was released. Thomas’ admiration for Donna Summer and her elevation of the working woman culminated in the 2002 work, Donna Summer, in which the artist presented the singer in her signature bejewelled style.




    Left: Donna Summer, She Works Hard for the Money (from the album She Works Hard for the Money, 1983)

    Right: Mickalene Thomas, Donna Summer, 2002
    © 2021 Mickalene Thomas / ARS, NY


    “I guess my appeal to craft materials is also another historical reference to women making art.”
    — Mickalene Thomas


    When elaborating on the origins of her employment of media such as felt, yarn, rhinestones, glitter, Thomas has in the past commented that she turned to these alternative materials because of the high costs of oils/acrylics during her early artistic career, thus gravitating toward non-traditional materials that were considered ‘low art’ to some. She began accumulating and acquiring these to find meaning within them to use in her oeuvre ‘as a way of identifying myself but also making an image.’ iii


    Much like other female contemporaries who use ‘craft’ materials, such as Tschabalala Self, Billie Zangewa, Chiharu Shiota, Thomas’ evocation of traditional ‘womanly’ craft practices is a deliberate one to connect with but also elevate its historical reference. Coming hand in hand with her praxis of uplifting the ‘everywoman’, it is unsurprising that this is extended even to the media the artist selects.


    Creating Affinity: The African American Female Body


    Mickalene Thomas is adept at creating affinity where there was none before, and her transformation of the art historical cannon into one that includes people of colour is notable for its scope and depth of source.


    The artist is deeply inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—the American artist best known for her photography that focuses on the African American experience. Speaking about her 1994 encounter of Weems’ works, Thomas was ‘…inspired…Sort of overwhelmed with familiarity of myself. It was the first time seeing images that called to home…These images were so poignant, and direct, and it felt like they were telling my story.’ iv Highlighting some of the works from The Kitchen Table series, Thomas expounds on the emotional significance of representation and being seen, a powerful undercurrent that permeates her pieces.


    Speaking on another important photographic influence, Seydou Keïta, the artist explained, ‘I wasn’t trained as a photographer, but it was always a resource for my paintings. I’m always looking at Seydou Keïta and thinking, “How did he do that?”…I was really excited about how these different fabrics collided, but they made sense. They created chaos, but then this quiet moment with the figure.’ v It is thus noteworthy that the collision of fabrics, textures, rhinestones in Thomas’ works correspond powerfully to Keïta’s oeuvre in this regard.




     Left:  Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Nude), 1990 (from The Kitchen Table series) 

    Right: Seydou Keïta, Untitled [Seated Woman with Chevron Print Dress], 1956, printed 1997

    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    © Seydou Keïta – SKPEAC – Courtesy The Jean Pigozzi Collection of African Art


    Looking Up is a wonderful amalgamation of these photographs and memories, a palimpsest of sorts in which layer upon layer of interpretation seeps through our understanding and viewing experience. The central, sensuous nude reclines in ecstasy, set against a mustard yellow curtain with swirling patterns, recalling the yellows in Donna Summer’s album art. She is topless, donning polka dot, Coffy-esque underwear, and adorned in rhinestones. The shimmering result is risqué, elegant: reminiscent at once of the sensual scene depicted in Weems’ Untitled (Nude), while the viewer is treated to a visual feast of patterns comparable to Keïta’s complex photography. The woman is unapologetically sexy, erotic: a powerful affront to modesty and conservatism, reminiscent of odalisques portrayed in artistic discourse, but here transformed into one of William H. Johnson’s muses, another artist whose sensibility of line, representation of his journeys and the people in his environment especially struck a chord with Thomas.



    WILLIAM H. JOHNSON : Nude : circa 1939 : Archival Quality Art Print | eBay
    William H. Johnson, Nude, circa 1939
    Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum


    Collector’s Digest


    Mickalene Thomas joins a growing group of artists of colour who are transforming contemporary artistic discourse with their scrutiny of the art historical canon. A contemporary of powerful names such as Kehinde Wiley, Derrick Adams, Kerry James Marshall, Amy Sherald, Nina Chanel Abney, Thomas’ signature dazzling collages aim to dismantle the archetypal preconceptions of ‘beauty’, focusing on African American females. Having earned her BFA from the Pratt Institute and her MFA from Yale University School of Art, Thomas’ works are collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Brooklyn Museum, amongst many others.



    i The artist speaking within her Brooklyn studio, in conversation with Art Basel, December 2019 

    ii Ibid.

    iii The artist quoted in ‘Meeting the Artist: Mickalene Thomas on Her Materials and Artistic Influences’, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 30 November 2017

    iv The artist quoted in ‘In Conversation: Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems’, 5 January 2013, the Brooklyn Museum

    v The artist quoted in ‘Mickalene Thomas on Seydou Keïita’, in Smarthistory, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15 January 2021



    • Provenance

      Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago
      Phillips, New York, 18 May 2007, lot 110
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Chicago, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, It's about memory, 25 March - 23 April 2004

    • Artist Biography

      Mickalene Thomas

      American • 1971

      Glamour and feminism need not be foes, as evinced by the wonderful work of Mickalene Thomas. The artist examines these qualities through the lens of the African-American female experience. Whether with her rhinestone-inflected, '70s-glam-inspired portraits of black beauty and power or her photographic installations of her mother's living room, Thomas personalizes while aestheticizing a visual conversation about race. By tackling classical art historical themes, she writes African-American aesthetics into traditional conventions.

      Blockbuster retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum and ICA Boston thrust Thomas into contemporary art's mainstage. Her platform extends her creative pursuits into fashion, interiors and DJ'ing. Thomas' market has also grown at a steady pace with auction prices increasing each year.

      View More Works

Property from a Distinguished New York Collection


Looking Up from the She Works Hard For the Money Pin-Up series

signed, titled and dated '"LOOKING UP (FROM SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY PIN-UP SERIES)" Mickalene Thomas 2004' on the reverse
acrylic, rhinestones and oil enamel on wood panel
121.9 x 91.4 cm. (48 x 36 in.)
Executed in 2004.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for HK$3,780,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021