Mickalene Thomas is a multimedia artist whose paintings, photographs, and collages diversify ideas of beauty, race, and femininity. Throughout her practice, Thomas explores and asserts the complex identity of black women and challenges issues of representation in Western visual culture. The Brooklyn-based artist depicts relatives, friends, and lovers—real women with varying body types, ages, and hairstyles who exude a strong sense of confidence and elegance. Thomas’ portraits are often captured in her studio, where she constructs lavish 1970s-era living room settings, replete with wood panelling, furniture, and a rich cacophony of vintage-inspired patterns and textiles. Within this space, Thomas’ models make themselves at home, lounging and posing for the camera.

For What it Means to be Beautiful, the artist’s intimate photographic portraits are shown within the context of street advertising, where women are constantly bombarded with narrow notions of female beauty. Racquel Reclining Wearing Purple Jumpsuit #1 (2014), for example, is akin to a fashion advertisement, as the model—with her incredibly glamorous ensemble and afro—seductively leans back onto a couch. In some scenes, Thomas’ models appear relaxed, gazing at the viewer as if waking from a nap or listening to music, while others take the form of more traditional portraiture. In all, the women appear regal and graceful. The fractured and collaged spaces nod to cubism and add elements of tactility and three-dimensionality to the images. Thomas often riffs on art history—unabashedly posing her subjects to reference iconic paintings by masters such as Manet or Ingres. Through this project—positioned on billboards in Toronto and eight major cities across Canada— the artist critiques the lacuna of black women from visual culture while asserting their empowered presence and identity in the very spaces from which they have been historically excluded.

Across Canada Locations Calgary: 9 Ave at 9 St SE & 10 St SE Edmonton: 105 St & 103 Ave Halifax: North St at Alderney Dr (Halifax) Montreal: Van Horne Ave at St Laurent Blvd & St Urbain St Saskatoon: Pacific Ave & 22nd St Ottawa: Cumberland St at Besserer St Vancouver: Clark Dr at East 4 Ave & East 2 Ave Winnipeg: Bannatyne Ave at Hargrave St & Osborne St at Gertrude Ave & Wardlaw Ave

Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising and Nikon Canada

Curated by Heather Rigg