The Yale University Art Gallery hosted a reception Friday evening to celebrate the new historical-contemporary exhibition “Mickalene Thomas / Portrait of an Unlikely Space” opening to the public. 

Organized by well-known artist Mickalene Thomas ART ’02 and Keely Orgeman, the Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, the exhibition features pre-Emancipation Era small-scale portraits of African Americans, as well as works of many media by contemporary artists. 

This is the second event this year honoring Thomas’s work at the University; the first was an unveiling of a mural designed by Thomas depicting Pauli Murray LAW ’65 at the eponymous Yale residential college.  

“With its evocative installation designed by Thomas, the exhibition aims to create an experience of communal belonging for the individuals depicted in the historical objects, the artists whose work is represented in the show, and the visitors engaging with both the past and the present,” the YUAG said in a press release for the exhibition.

The exhibition was inspired by a portrait of a formerly enslaved woman named Rose Prentice, 1771–1852, painted by the eminent miniaturist Sarah Goodridge circa 1837-38. 

Goodridge’s portrait miniature of a Black individual is the only one of its kind in the Gallery’s permanent collection.

“To better understand the rarity of the Rose Prentice miniature in a broader context, I began searching for other small-scale, early American portraits of Black Americans, not just watercolor-on-ivory miniatures (as in the Gallery’s portrait) but also silhouettes on paper, frontispiece prints in books, and cased photographs, all made in the pre-Emancipation period,” Orgeman told the News.

Orgeman thought extensively about the intended viewership of these types of portraits, arriving at the conclusion that an environment like a “domestic space” would be better than a traditional museum gallery to experience these works.  

In June 2019, Orgeman contacted Mickalene Thomas, who is known for her depictions of Black women and ornately decorated domestic interiors, prompting a yearslong professional relationship that resulted in the completion of this exhibition. 

The Gallery celebrated the opening of this exhibit to the public on Friday evening with a reception featuring a performance by Yale University’s undergraduate a capella group “Shades of Yale” — a group known for singing music of the African diaspora and African American tradition. 

“I’ve long been a fan of Mickalene Thomas,” said Kennedy Anderson ’25, who attended the Friday reception. “Where so many artists depersonalize the Black female body, straddling it with harsh contours and contrasts, Thomas furnishes us … She depicts us as lavish, just as I understand us to be. Meeting her in person at the opening — hugging her, sharing space with an all-time idol and inspiration — was just so insanely cool. I’m still on a high.”

The exhibit features historical and contemporary works situated within wallpaper, period-specific furniture and photo collages that integrate patterns inspired by textiles sewn by Black women.

Thomas put significant thought into the exhibition’s setting. 

“I created my previous domestic settings primarily for fellow Black women — my ‘muses’ — to spend time and have new experiences in familiar surroundings, perhaps resembling their mothers’ or grandmothers’ living rooms,” she said. “The interiors I have constructed for this exhibition address the same group but of an entirely different generation, those who came of age before slavery was fully abolished in the United States. The sitters [in the historical works] are my muses here. I dedicate this space to them.”

Other contemporary artists featured in the exhibit include Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter, Sula Bermúdez-Silverman, Lebohang Kganye, Wardell Milan, Adia Millett, Devin N. Morris, Betye Saar and Curtis Talwst Santiago, whose works in the exhibit make reference to the domestic lives of members of Black communities around the world.

Tiffany Sprague, Director of Publications at the Yale University Art Gallery, wrote to the News that the Gallery was “thrilled” to have been able to “bring this remarkable exhibition to life.” 

“The publications team is especially looking forward to celebrating the related catalog — the release of which has been delayed to allow for the inclusion of photographs documenting the installation — with panel discussions and a book launch on October 26,” Sprague wrote to the News.

The exhibition is now open to all for viewing until Jan. 7, 2024.

Dorothea Robertson covers art at Yale. A member of Yale College's Class of 2025, she will receive a B.A. in Religious Studies, focusing on religious art.