Mickalene Thomas recreates the sparkling dance parties and radical black aesthetic of the ’70s and ’80s

The artist enlists emerging artists and musicians in an immersive tribute to her mother at Miami's Bass Museum.

It was a set of Polaroids from the ’70s and ’80s that depict her mother having a good time at parties that inspired Mickalene Thomas to create the exhibition and immersive art experience Better Nights at The Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, on view through September 27, 2020. Her mother—Sandra Bush, who passed away in 2012 and is a constant presence throughout Thomas’s work—hosted parties with friends and family to raise money for theater productions and to treat her sickle cell anemia.

“It’s reimagined from an archival set of Polaroids that I found of my mother when she passed in 2012, and I’ve been working from these Polaroids as resources for inspiration to create these immersive instant installations,” explained Thomas, who created the first iteration of the project as Better Days at the Galerie Volkshaus in Basel, Switzerland during Art Basel 2013.

The exhibition opens with a mixed media photograph of a woman—some fragments are pixelated and others adorned with Swarovski crystal tape. During Art Basel in Miami Beach 2019, Thomas turned the room that houses the mirrored nightclub and kaleidoscopic works made with Swarovski crystals she created for the exhibition into a nightly dance-filled party, featuring performances by artists like Jody Watley, Meshell Ndegeocello, and QUIÑ, along with DJ sets by Derrick Adams, YSL, and Papi Juice. “Besides it being an activated space in the evening, it is an installation during the day, so people should go and experience it as an installation itself,” said Thomas.

Mickalene Thomas: Better Nights, installation view at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, December 1, 2019- September 27, 2020. Image courtesy The Bass, photography by Zachary Balber.

Along with the mirrored, speakeasy-like space, Thomas reimagined the black radical aesthetic, creating a domestic environment that is a reflection of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, complete with reupholstered furniture, vibrant textiles, mirrors, wallpaper, and faux wood paneling. On its walls, Thomas installed works by artists who she considers her friends and family—there’s a portrait of a woman named Alphanza by David Antonio Cruz; a piece by Derrick Adams that fuses together a face with model cars; a painting, aptly-titled “Disco” by Nina Chanel Abney; photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris; and a photograph of a woman with a rainbow of barrettes on her hair by Miciah Carter. In the next room, videos by Christie Neptune, Devin N. Morris, and more play.

“It’s just like collective experiences, collective memories, of sound and energy of music and so you bring them together,” explained Thomas. “These spaces allowed me to include emerging artists to be a part of it—and musicians—and really think about it as a collective experience for social practice.”

Mickalene Thomas: Better Nights
The Bass
December 1, 2019 –September 27, 2020