Exploring Mickalene Thomas's Portrait of Mnonja
In this activity, students will explore Mickalene Thomas's process, artistic influences, and art historical context. Students will examine Thomas's Portrait of Mnonja (2010, Smithsonian American Art Museum) in depth, and use three supporting resources to build context.
1. Have students look at Mickalene Thomas's Portrait of Mnonja. Give them 2-3 minutes to do a quick sketch of the painting.
2. Next, ask them to note the part of the painting their eye went to first on their sketch with a star.
3. Next, ask students to draw a line through their sketch to show the path their eye used to travel through the painting. Use arrows to indicate direction.
4. In pairs or as a class, ask students to share where their eye went first, and why they think it went there. Was it the color? Light? Lines? The placement in the composition?
5. Next, students should write a list of 8-10 words and phrases describing the painting. Ask for volunteers to share out.
6. As a group, discuss students' impressions of the painting. Ask for visual evidence to back up claims. (e.g. A student says, "she looks powerful." You ask, "what do you see that makes you say she's powerful?")
7. To further the conversation, share some background information about the painting: the title, the date, and the artist. Explain a little about Mickalene Thomas's process: posing live models in sets with props and furniture, taking photographs, then painting from the photographs.
8. Next, break students into small groups. Each group should receive a printout of ONE of the three supporting resources in this collection. Ask them to compare and contrast their image with Portrait of Mnonja.
9. After 4-5 minutes, ask each group to share out the main idea from what they discussed. The teacher should add additional information as it is useful.
a. Mickalene Thomas set photograph: Shows the artist's process, how she uses real models and sets. Note patterns and 1970s motifs.
b. Romare Bearden collage: Thomas has cited Bearden as one of her artistic influences. Students should note similarities in color, pattern, and flatness.
c. John Collier painting: An example from the early 1900s of the "reclining woman" in art history. Students should discuss the passiveness/agency of each of these women, and how a male artist's depiction of a woman differs from a female artist's in this case. Thomas was well versed in art history and was consciously making reference to precedents like this.
10. Writing Activity: In small groups, have students write a dialogue between Mnonja and someone else. It could be the artist, the viewer, or someone from one of the supporting resources.
Optional: Have students view one or both of the short videos of Mickalene Thomas discussing Portrait of Mnonja.