Mickalene Thomas’ I was born to do great things is an unconventional portrait of Sandra Bush, the artist’s late mother and muse. The presentation at Kavi Gupta is split into two spaces. A traditional, white cube gallery containing vitrines and art-adorned walls is contrasted with a gallery space evocative of a 1970’s living room, with mismatched furniture, wood paneling, and linoleum tile. The show’s title is a quote from Thomas’ mother-muse. “I was born to do great things” speaks to Bush’s views of herself and brings to the forefront identity, a major theme of the exhibition. Though the sculptures and paintings are a visual reminder of her mother, a short documentary in the den gallery delves into Bush’s melancholic feelings of regret for not succeeding at a career in modeling, which is countered with pride in acting as her daughter’s muse.
In the main gallery, Thomas intersperses her mother’s artifacts – a tube of lipstick, Chinese dolls, jewelry – with works made by the artist that were inspired by her mother’s larger-than-life personality. These artifacts were collected from her mother’s home following her death in 2012, and act as a proxy for her maternal presence. Having been used by Bush to shape her identity, they come to exemplify her exquisite style and grace.
The most provocative works in the show were sculptures cast in bronze: a jacket, loose hanging sweater, a pair of jeans, a bra, and Crocs. In removing these items from her mother’s home and transforming them into bronze sculptures, Thomas is memorializing her mother in a format reserved for historical greats – a fitting tribute to a woman who continues to inspire an entire artistic practice.