“Do I look like a fucking lady or what?” So begins one of Adele Givens’s many appearances on Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam. She continues, “I like being a fucking lady, especially in the ’90s. We get to say what the fuck we want to, don’t we, girls?” Almost two decades later, Mickalene Thomas, whose solo exhibition is titled after the performer’s brilliant greeting (minus the F-bomb), responds in the affirmative.
At the center of Thomas’s installation is a twelve-minute two-channel video, Do I Look Like a Lady (Comedians and Singers), 2016, which collages together footage of a host of black female performers: Josephine Baker shadow-dancing; Nina Simone singing “I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”; a young Whoopi Goldberg doing her brilliant white girl routine; Pam Grier kicking ass; Whitney Houston beginning “The Greatest Love of All”; Givens opening her set; and Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who makes repeat appearances throughout, telling jokes and singing. This pantheon of women (some of whom are also represented in the four dazzling silk-screen and mirror paintings that line the room) charts out a genealogy, fulfilling what M. Jacqui Alexander calls the “desire to belong to the self in community,” a political desire that culminates in “radical self-possession.”
Thomas’s installation encourages such belonging: One can lounge on stools and in chairs tufted with a patchwork of seventies-era fabrics and read from stacks of books by the likes of Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, and many others. It’s a situation that insists on the value and contributions of these writers and performers, and, not insignificantly, of this artist’s own aesthetic. Or, as Givens would put it, “Ladies in the house tonight!”