What is your heterotopia? Professor Tosha Stimage, an artist and visiting professor at the Columbus College of Art & Design, asked this question at her gallery talk, “The Self-Aware Subjects and Spaces of Mickalene Thomas,” on November 15th. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s theory of spaces, Prof. Stimage defined heterotopia as a cross between a utopia (a perfected world) and a dystopia (a world of chaos), a place that acknowledges hardship while also “strategizing” toward a goal. In this way, a heterotopia is not a “perfected” world but a real space different from and similar to an illusive and unreal utopia (Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”). In Prof. Stimage’s particular definition of a heterotopia, I found inspiration, a way of understanding spaces as sites of learning, subversion, and hope. Guiding viewers through Mickalene Thomas’s new exhibition “I Can’t See You Without Me,” Prof. Stimage demonstrated how Thomas creates a heterotopia at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
As Prof. Stimage explained, Thomas’s three-dimensional paintings, sites that house various Black muses, “create space where there is no space.” In other words, Thomas’s work comments on art history, a space where complex representations of African Americans were and are often excluded. The muses in Thomas’s portraits stare into this historical void and instead show a vibrant presence. Prof. Stimage, by using Foucault and several other theorists, crafted a gallery talk that not only unveiled Thomas’s heterotopia. In the gallery space, Prof. Stimage also created a heterotopia herself; her talk allowed space for viewers to understand the context and revolution behind Thomas’s paintings and, most importantly, meditate on the self-reflective work that “I Can’t See You Without Me” necessitates.
Specifically, two important topics of Prof. Stimage’s talk remained with me as I left the Wexner: self-reflection and heterotopias. As Prof. Stimage demonstrated, being self-reflective (cognizant of how one moves in the world) and creating heterotopias (spaces in which to reimagine the world) were two tangible ways for reimagining societal narratives. Thomas, Prof. Stimage revealed, does both.
Thomas evokes self-reflexivity: through her use of three-dimensional pieces and tableaux, she encourages her viewers to contemplate “space as an extension of the body.” Thomas’s tableaux, models reminiscent of 1970s homes, become extensions of memories. Viewers, walking beside or through these tableaux, are invited to reflect on their own spatial relationships to Thomas’s work. They contemplate how their own bodies move through space. They reflect on how spaces include or exclude people different from or similar to themselves.
In fact, Prof. Stimage described how the very title of Thomas’s show, “I Can’t See You Without Me,” is self-reflection itself. By evoking the first-person pronoun, Thomas prompts the viewer to consider not only Thomas’s personal connection to the paintings, but also their own. How do they personally connect to Thomas’s work? How do they engage in a relationship with it?
These self-reflective questions continue, building into a new way of viewing the world. While Thomas evokes self-reflection, she also creates a heterotopia. She remakes a space for black representation. By comparing Thomas’s paintings to a series of reclining nudes (for example, the Venus of Urbino and Olympia), Prof. Stimage showed that Africans and African Americans were represented in this historical line of portraiture and desire as slaves. Thomas, by positioning her own mother in a reclining nude pose, places her among a historical “conversation of desire” and thus rewrites these narratives of exclusion and oppression.
Thomas’s reimagining, as Prof. Stimage uncovered, does not stop there. Focusing on a recurring theme of horizontal composition in Thomas’s work, Prof. Stimage introduced the social concept of horizontality to audience members. Horizontality, she explained, is a way to reimagine political power—instead of imagining society as top-down power structures, it can be envisioned as horizontal relationships or equitable distributions of power. Similarly, Thomas’s paintings, Prof. Stimage argued, also call for the viewer to reimagine power structures.
For example, Prof. Stimage pointed out that many of Thomas’s figures recline on the horizon, a horizontal line that steadies and grounds a composition. This composition is, in fact, a horizontal revolution. By resting on a horizon, these figures recline on a point that we often look toward. These muses reconfigure the presence of African and African Americans in art history; centered, instead of placed on the periphery, they propose and enact a different system of power on the canvas.
Thomas’s muses also spark a visual revolution through their gazes. The gaze, Prof. Stimage stated, is “often a mirror of our desires.” Like a mirror, our gaze holds a projection of an “ideal self.” Thomas’s muses cast their gazes often, looking directly at the viewer or, with a rapt gaze, past the viewer. Their eyes tell of desire and interiority. Significantly, their gazes are reimaginings in motion because they generate self-reflection. If these black women gaze so confidently and vulnerably at the viewer, how and why do they do so? To show themselves, change a perception, express a desire?
As Prof. Stimage discussed, their intent gazes, both projecting outward and reflecting inward, remind us what we tend to forget: the gaze, while looking out and beyond, is “also meant to show ourselves.” And, with this reminder, Thomas’s women and their confident gazes are all the more important. They stand against and are contextualized within a world that teaches the art world’s gaze to look away. To not reflect Africans and African Americans or homosexual desire. In this way, “I Can’t See You Without Me” is a heterotopia once more: it subversively invites us to see ourselves and others in the gaze, to be reflective about one’s own image and its relationship to others.
Overall, what Prof. Stimage’s gallery talk did, as Dr. Simone C. Drake’s talk and other Wex programming did, was nudge viewers to gaze at the horizon. To begin to imagine their heterotopias. Prof. Stimage revealed that the Wexner space, with Thomas’s work on its walls, is a heterotopia because it is creating a space of representation.
The Shumate Council is our heterotopia. It enacts Prof. Stimage’s definition, working horizontally to create self-reflective moments and imagine new spaces for creativity. Prof. Stimage’s talk, like several other Fall events at the Wex, was the Shumate Council in action. She challenged participants to rethink their relationship to art, and she reminded us how art specifically serves as a force for social change, a catalyst for reimagination, and a visual activation of theory and hope. So, following the gaze of Thomas’s muses, what do you imagine? Another world that rests beyond the corner of your eye? A reimagined society at the “intersection of two bodies”? A place “where desire is cast”?
Most significantly, how do you create a heterotopia in your own community? In the spirit of Prof. Stimage’s talk, please comment and share your responses to this vital question.
Check out the following links to keep Prof. Stimage’s conversation going…
- Tosha Stimage, “The Self-Aware Subjects and Spaces of Mickalene Thomas” (Wexner Center gallery talk): https://wexarts.org/talks-more/tosha-stimage
- Tosha Stimage, “Black women will save the world” (Wexner Center interview): https://wexarts.org/read-watch-listen/black-women-will-save-world-interview-tosha-stimage
- Tosha Stimage’s website: http://toshastimage.com/
- Mickalene Thomas, “I Can’t See You Without Me”: https://wexarts.org/exhibitions/mickalene-thomas-i-cant-see-you-without-me
- Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”: https://foucault.info/documents/heterotopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en/
- General Definition of Heterotopias (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterotopia_(space)#cite_note-4
–Ebony Bailey, Shumate Council intern