NCMA Recommends: Three Graces
Mickalene Thomas, Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2011, rhinestones, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)
Visitors sometimes ask if that’s Oprah at the center of Mickalene Thomas’s incredible Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires. It’s not, but it wouldn’t be out of line or thematically off. Thomas is inspired by iconic African American women who forged a path where none existed. In her multimedia installations, she pays direct homage to Donna Summer, Moms Mabley, Wanda Sykes, Nina Simone, Diahann Carroll, and Missy Elliott, among others, invoking “a call and response to a particular memory.”
Just like the media mogul herself, Thomas’s three women—modeled after the traditional art-historical representation of the Three Graces from ancient Greco-Roman art—are empowered, emotive, and fearless.
Everything about this work screams self-confidence: the women’s poses, their ultra-glam outfits, and even the bright colors and patterns that surround them. It’s one of the most positive and accepting views of womanhood in the NCMA collection, one that celebrates feminine strength, beauty, and power in all its variations.
It’s telling, too, that Mickalene Thomas has updated the Three Graces with a scene of three modern African American women ready for a night on the town. The Graces—mythological personifications of charm, beauty, and creativity—have typically been envisioned as white women (see Botticelli’s famous Primavera at the Uffizi Galleries, Florence). This retelling of the story modernizes mythology by attracting a broader audience and inviting diverse voices to respond.
Local Artist Connection
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2019, the NCMA programmed a weekend of interactive experiences led by women in the arts from across North Carolina. Durham-based artist, playwright, and performer Monet Noelle Marshall led a tour of work that spoke to her and offered inspiration, reflecting aspects of her work as a woman of color creating art today. Our conversation, filmed a year later, explores representation, art as time travel, technology, and the idea that “creativity is our emotional immunity” in times of crisis.
The Graces are presented in art throughout the ages as three women representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity. You can see the Graces in La Primavera (Spring) (1477–82) by Sandro Botticelli. You can learn more about this great painting with Google Arts and Culture. Click “View in Street View” to explore the painting in the Ufizzi Gallery. Download the Google Arts and Culture App to take a full 360 tour of the Uffizzi.
Zoom Meeting Background
Looking for the perfect background for your Zoom meetings? Immerse yourself in works of art from the Museum Park or right alongside the Three Graces, like Jennifer Dasal, curator of modern and contemporary art, by downloading one of these images. When in Zoom, hit the arrow in the bottom left corner of your window and select “choose a virtual background.” Pick your freshly downloaded choice, and voilà!
This Spotify playlist includes songs by Lizzo, Queen Latifah, and Chaka Khan, who performed at the Museum last summer.
These films evoke the aesthetics and concepts of representation, beauty, and power depicted in Three Graces.
• Hair Love (2019). Director: Matthew A. Cherry. For the whole family. Won the 2020 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Watch free on YouTube.
• Jewel’s Catch One (2016). Director: C. Fitz. Recommended by guest contributor Monet Marshall. Watch on Netflix.
• Paris Is Burning (1990). Director: Jennie Livingston. Documentary about New York City ball culture and minority, gay, and transgender communities. Watch on Netflix.
Books and Articles
• Bomb.com article: Mickalene Thomas by Sean Landers
• Bomb.com article: Mickalene Thomas by Kara Walker
Thomas’s art is vibrant, powerful, and fun to look at together! Find art-making ideas, book recommendations, and an audio play with a twist on NCMALearn.
The Three Graces represent values such as charm, beauty, and creativity, and by depicting them as modern African American women, Thomas shows the Three Graces do not have a single story. Here are poems that celebrate women and their creative, beautiful, and multifaceted nature. Find the full list of poetries and poerty actirivies on NCMALearn.
Discover or deepen your understanding of the personal power that resides within you. Below are guided reflections from Bryanne Senor, Manager of Park Programs, and associated somatic practices shared from Angela Griffin, a teacher at Raleigh’s Colors of Yoga studio; then enjoy more of Colors of Yoga’s virtual classes.
We have all been there, to a point of lacking confidence or feeling unworthy, maybe even feeling completely powerless. If it is not too uncomfortable, just for a few moments, invoke this feeling in your body. Your shoulders might round and your back slump. Your head might hang low and your feet might feel like they are not on solid ground. Maybe you have a pit in your stomach or vulnerability in your heart.
Now, let’s start to shift these feelings by shifting the body. If you can, stand up, plant your feet firmly on the ground, and find a stable stance in the legs. You can also find a similar steady and strong seated position. Take some deep and purposeful breaths as you roll your shoulders down your back, opening the front of your body, and eventually lift through your chest. Hold your head high. Reach through the top of your head and make your spine as long as it has ever been. Keep breathing deeply and begin to move your arms in a way that feels expansive and reminds you of your strength. Feel your inner power. Feel into your inherent reserves of worthiness, self-acceptance, and owning your story. This all resides within you. Cultivate confidence without external influences.
Land in your final “power pose” here and savour it. You can find your own shape, mirror the figures in Three Graces, or follow along with Colors of Yoga below.
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