Imagining a Black Universe

Origin of the Universe I

“Origin of the Universe I” by Mickalene Thomas.

Fresh off of a critically acclaimed four-month exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Mickalene Thomas is an artist on the rise. The New York-based Thomas’s inimitable style–exemplified by her use of vibrant colors, intricately patterned rhinestones and fractured landscapes–captures the world with an unflinching intimacy.

Perhaps the most audacious piece from her recent exhibition is Thomas’s re-interpretation of Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde.” Now considered a masterpiece, Courbet’s work initially received widespread criticism and was considered vulgar for prominently displaying the genitalia of a White woman. In Thomas’s version, “Origin of the Universe I,” the female figure has deep brown skin and is inspired by the artist’s own anatomy. Unlike the controversy which surrounded the Courbet piece, Thomas’s painting encounters a historical legacy of trauma and exploitation which posits Black female sexuality as banal and readily accessible. In the contemporary moment, organizations like FAAN Mail continue to fight against this objectification of Black female bodies in mass media through initiatives like their “Talk Back” series.

In “Origin of the Universe I”, Thomas offers her own version of “talking back” by re-imagining Black womanhood. The title recalls an older history: the African origins of humanity. Moreover, the stark prominence of the nude figure moves the Black female from the margin, and marginalization, to the center, as the titular progenitor of the universal. Thus, “Origin of the Universe I”  invites observers to imagine a world awash in Black beauty, reminiscent of the vastness of space, while bejeweled tufts of pubic hair twinkle like stars.

by Brittany Duck. Brittany is graduate student at The New School. She resides in Weeksville, Brooklyn.

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2 Comments

  1. Rebecca McCarthy

     /  March 14, 2013

    The 1970’s aesthetic that is seen in Thomas’ works when it comes to hair is interesting as well. When it comes to below-the-belt hair, some feminists criticize the contemporary trend of “hairlessness” as representing male control in relationships, the human body being seen as ‘impure’ in it’s natural state, or a desire for women to look like girls. There are also plenty of feminists who don’t believe these theories, but either way Thomas is offerring a powerful contrasting image to the hairlessness often seen in art/movies/television.

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  2. wren longno

     /  April 27, 2013

    Bittany, I meant to say months ago when it was more significant and you could have actually gone, but still…I love that this was happening in Brooklyn while in Queens we flocked to see “Now Dig This” an incredible history-through-art curated by Kellie Jones, a history/archaeology professor and including Black artists from LA in the 70s: Melvin Edwards, David Hammons, Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar.

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