Figuring History is a show about righting the wrongs of erasure.
By Katie Kurtz
Three young women of color arrange themselves in front of Mickalene Thomas's painting, "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe: Les trois femmes noires" at Seattle Art Museum. The massive, 10-by-24-foot mixed-media piece is Thomas's take on a famous painting by Édouard Manet, "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe," wherein two clothed white men, a naked white woman, and a partially clothed white woman are having a messy picnic in the woods.
A group of mostly white people watch the young women and start snapping photos. I pause to direct the women's poses to match the three African American women in Thomas's painting. Then I snap a photo, too. Though it was a casual moment, it occurs to me as I walk away that I didn't explicitly ask their permission first. What right do I have to tell these women what to do?
I cringe to think how often unconscious performances of white entitlement (like what I did) may play out among museumgoers at Figuring History. And also, how many people of color will be sought out by white people to "help them understand the work." So a special note to white people attending this show (and a note to self, too): Don't be an entitled asshole. Don't step into conversations you haven't been invited into. And don't snap pics unless you've been asked to.
Figuring History, curated by Catharina Manchanda (who is white and German, a background she acknowledges as contributing a different perspective to the necessity of an exhibition such as this right now), brings together three generations of artists working in the genre of history painting: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas. The first piece you see is Colescott's satirical George Washington Carver Crosses the Delaware. His work lays the historical groundwork for the show—explicitly addressing racial stereotypes and rescuing from obscurity African Americans who've made significant contributions to society.
As the exhibition progresses, Kerry James Marshall moves us into the 20th century with his "Souvenir" series, which pays homage to cultural and political figures of the 1960s—from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Lorraine Hansberry to Otis Redding to Bobby Kennedy. The volume of losses makes you wonder where we might be now if there hadn't been so many assassinations, murders, and early deaths.
From there, we move into Mickalene Thomas's body of work, which offers a necessary corrective for the wildly anachronistic schism the US is currently undergoing. Her pieces are gigantic, exuberant portraits of black women in classical poses. In her work, there is not a white person in sight. Wild with patterns and color, and details of glitter and rhinestone, these portraits that riff off the "old masters" present transfigurations nestled in familiar compositions (for instance, the composition of that old Manet painting).
Thomas—queer, black, female—insists her work is "not necessarily only geared toward African-American women." I do not think this is a reflexive, sublimated accommodation to white audiences, but in 2018, it'd be more than okay if she said that African American women are exactly who the work is geared toward.
There is also a brand new painting by Thomas in the show. It's explicitly political. And it's huge. Go have a look.