Mickalene Thomas was born in 1971 in Camden, New Jersey, and raised by her mother. She holds a BFA from Pratt Institute and received her MFA from Yale University. As an undergrad at the Pratt Institute, Thomas focused on abstract painting. In grad school at Yale, her professors suggested that she take a photography class, where she began making self-portraits. She also asked her mother to model for her, although they both had a complicating mother-daughter relationship due to her parents' addiction to drugs. After they had reconciled, she started to photograph herself and her mother during her studies at Yale. In her mother, Thomas found a subject who solidified her transition to figurative art. “Seeing my mother in those images gave me that sense of validation of seeing yourself in images and providing a sense of agency for others,” she says.
Thomas often uses the photographs as artworks, but she also used them as references for her paintings. At Pratt she had explored unorthodox materials, but at Yale she stuck to oil paints. “I actually use photography – within my practice as a form of drawing,” she says. “I think a lot of artists might sketch out their ideas. For me photography works out in that way, using it at a medium to formalize my work and conceptualize it.” While working across multiple series, much of her photographic work functions as a personal act of deconstruction and reappropriation. With each series, she grapples with and asserts new definitions of beauty and inspiration. Her figures do not lend themselves to passive consumption but are powerful agents who confront the viewer. The power dynamics shift as Thomas negotiates gender and sexuality through a contemporary female gaze.