Mickalene Thomas is a contemporary African-American visual artist best known as a painter of complex works using rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel. Her work draws from Western art history, pop art and visual culture to examine ideas around femininity, beauty, race, sexuality, and gender.
Her depictions of African-American women explore notions of celebrity and identity while engaging with the representation of black femininity and black power. Women in provocative poses dominate the picture plane and are surrounded by decorative patterns inspired by her childhood - as in Left Behind 2 Again from 2012, in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Her subjects are often well-known women like Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, and Condoleezza Rice. Her portrait of Michelle Obama was the first individual portrait done of the First Lady and was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery's Americans Now show.
In her 2017 solo exhibition "Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities" at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), Thomas created multi-media installations that centered black women in the narrative-arcs of their own stories. According to art critic Rikki Byrd: "Positioning black women — artists, actresses, characters, and her own family — as mentors and muses, and as heroic figures in a lineage of their own, Thomas overrides oppressive narratives."
The many years that Thomas has spent studying art history, portrait painting, landscape painting, and still life has informed her work. She has drawn inspiration from multiple artistic periods and cultural influences throughout Western art history, particularly the early modernists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Édouard Manet, and Romare Bearden. She models her figures on the classical poses and abstract settings popularized by these modern artists as a way to reclaim agency for women who have been represented as objects to be desired or subjugated.
Thomas is known for her elaborate mixed-media paintings composed of rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel that present a "complex vision of what it means to be a woman and expands common definitions of beauty.