Q&A: Lava Thomas
Lava Thomas’s work explores the events, figures and movements that inform and shape our individual and collective histories. Through an oeuvre that spans drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and installation, her practice centers around notions of visibility, resilience, and empowerment in the face of erasure, trauma and oppression.
Thomas is a native of Los Angeles, CA. She studied at UCLA’s School of Art Practice and received a BFA from California College of the Arts. Thomas has been awarded residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Kala Art Institute, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She is the recipient of a Getty Foundation Grant, a Peninsula Community Foundation Fellowship and the Joan Mitchell Grant for Painters and Sculptors.
Her work has been exhibited at various institutions including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C; the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, CA; the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa, CA; the International Print Center in New York; the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, CA; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, CO; and the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco; the United States Consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa; the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, CA; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Thomas is represented by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Zora J Murff: Hi Lava! I’m so glad that we’re able to connect for this interview. I’ve been following your work (and success) through Instagram for awhile now.
Lava Thomas: Thank you, Zora. You never know who is watching on Instagram. Thanks for reaching out.
ZJM: Can you describe your journey into art? Do you have any early experiences that still resonate in your artistic practice today?
LT: I was a creative, bookish kid. I loved to draw and had a facility for it. The women in my family were creative and made things, often out of necessity, so making was a part of our everyday lives. My grandmother had a beauty shop, so beauty and aesthetics were important.
My earliest encounters with fine art and art history were through reading Highlights Magazine, a weekly children’s magazine that my grandmother subscribed to for her shop. One issue featured an article on Las Meninas by Velasquez with a reproduction of the painting. I was probably seven or eight and it was the first time that I saw young girls portrayed in an artwork. For me, the painting was all about girls and clothes; the dog in foreground made the scene even more accessible. It didn’t matter that the painting was from 1656, or that its primary subject was a Spanish Princess.
When I read that the artist placed himself in the painting, I began to understand something about authorship and what artists could do. Looking at and learning about that centuries-old image gave me a glimpse of art’s power and permanence. The experience placed the possibility of becoming an artist into my consciousness, though it has taken many years on a circuitous path to actually become one professionally.
I studied studio art in college, but also looked at other professions related to art. I went to UCLA at a time when there were no faculty of color, and the attitude toward work by students of color ranged from indifference to hostility. There wasn’t support for work that reflected our experience or history.
While I was an undergrad, I interned in the Getty Museum’s antiquities conservation department in a program designed to introduce studio art majors to the profession and help them enter the field.One of my tasks was to make impressions from fifth and sixth century B.C. Roman signet rings. Working in the lab made history tangible. The work was exciting and I seriously considered conservation as a profession.
During this time, Carrie Mae Weems’ series, From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried was exhibited in the Getty Villa, just steps away from the conservation lab. The series is comprised of photographs picturing slaves, images which Weems’s mined from various archives. The series contends with the complicated history of photography—in particular, its role in substantiating notions of racial hierarchy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Weems’ forced viewers to recognize the humanity of each subject and grapple with the horrors of slavery. I spent time looking at the exhibition everyday over the course of my internship. That experience made an indelible impact. It challenged me to question what I wanted my role to be as an artist and professional: Did I want a career conserving objects that were in many ways entangled in histories of oppression, or did I want engage in work that would address those issues? I chose the latter.
ZJM: The first work that I saw of yours was Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Could you talk a little bit about the work: how you began to make it and how it evolved over time?
LT: I’d been thinking about the modern Civil Rights Movement since the 2015 Charleston 9 massacre, which recalled the Birmingham bombings of 1963.The debates around confederate flags and monuments that followed, the racist and misogynistic rhetoric coming out of the 2016 presidential campaign, the rise of white nationalism, and increase in hate crimes resonated with this history in a way that made it feel very present.
Researching events that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement revealed the extent to which women’s contributions were absent in popular histories of the era. Women were at the forefront and were the backbone of the Movement, but dominant histories focus almost exclusively on a few individuals, namely Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Embarking on a project that would rectify that erasure seemed pressing and necessary.
Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott takes a contemporary look back at the under acknowledged legacy of Black women’s activism through a series of portraits based on mugshots of women who were arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the formative event that launched the modern Civil Rights Movement. These women were the primary instigators and organizers of the boycott and they were part of a group of boycott leaders who were indicted under Alabama’s anti-boycott laws two months after Rosa Parks’ famous arrest. I drew the portraits using graphite and conté pencil on paper to underscore the fragility of this history, the ease with which is can be erased if it isn’t adamantly preserved. The notion of labor is conceptually embedded within each drawing, with the accumulation of thousands of visible strokes – a technique that is labor intensive and time consuming.
I worked on the series over a two year period, after Trump’s election and leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. I was invited to present the project while it was still in progress at the Smithsonian American Art Museum during a panel that commemorated the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 2018. The series was exhibited at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco last fall.
For a more in-depth discussion and history of women in the Civil Rights Movement, I recommend JoAnn Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Belinda Robnett’s How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights, and Danielle L. McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.
ZJM: When I read the newspaper this morning, I saw that Ralph Northam's racism was exposed via a yearbook photograph. It has me thinking about photography’s lasting power as well as how an object can be understood differently than how it was at its inception. I’m sure this is something you probably considered in your work (the photograph as a tool of oppression made into images to be revered), could you share some thoughts on that?
LT: We can’t really think about photography without addressing its loaded history. The photographic archive and standardized identification photographs were initially created as a tool of state surveillance used to oppress black and brown bodies. At its inception, these surveillance strategies were created for the purpose of identifying a criminal ‘type’ and were made to function through contradistinction—the pretense being that you could identify a criminal just by looking at them. These systems relied on racist pseudoscience where racial hierarchies were “scientifically” investigated and established, though only after having already concluded that one race was superior.
These are all ideas that I considered while making Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was thinking about how I could disrupt these systems, how visual codes of criminality could be transformed to present a contemporary way of looking at the Montgomery Bus Boycott women.
I was also interested in how these women undermined the state’s attempt to represent them as criminals by employing various strategies. For example, they dressed in their best clothes and refused to put the booking numbers around their necks. They maintained their agency and autonomy as best they could, taking control over their representation even as they were subject to the repressive limits of the mugshot. In doing so, they actively contributed to the “making” of their portrait, an idea that is raised in works by Alfredo Jaar and best summarized by Ansel Adams, when he says, “A photograph isn’t taken, it is made.”
ZJM: I think this is a good spot to transition into talking about some of your other works. In your exhibition Looking Back and Seeing Now and Requiem for Charleston, you’re also playing with the idea of correlating past to present. Two questions here: Why do you feel it is important to reference history in your work? The tambourine is a key element in both, can you speak to its symbolic efficacy?
LT: As I mentioned previously, those early encounters with art and history were important in my development as an artist. My childhood was also steeped in history, even though I grew up in Los Angeles, a city whose very ethos is self-reinvention and fantasy. I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about her childhood in Decatur, Texas. My family moved from Texas to LA in 1943 and my grandmother returned every year. She was involved in a restoration project of the one room segregated schoolhouse that she attended which is now a historical landmark. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was absorbing the idea that history was important, that it was important to know one’s origins and to remember a past that would otherwise be forgotten, so it follows that history would feature prominently in my work.
My work recognizes that the issues we face today have roots in the past and addresses the need for a more inclusive history. It also acknowledges the long legacy of resistance that bolsters our current struggles and the cyclical pattern of backlash that has historically followed periods of racial and gender rights’ progress in this country. This has been true from the time of reconstruction and we are witnessing it today following the two terms served by our country’s first Black president. My work engages the past as a way of inserting positive momentum into our current political moment, and to remind us that we have agency to change the course of this country. Knowledge of this history also reminds us that we must stay vigilant.
To answer your second question, I approach the tambourine as a ready-made object loaded with meaning: As an egalitarian instrument rooted in cultures around the globe, it speaks to our common humanity. It’s often played in contexts of activism, accompanying freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement and heard today during protest marches to amplify voices demanding justice (its use by organizers in Jamaica’s Tambourine Army is one contemporary example). The instrument serves as a potent symbol in my work and a source for ongoing inquiry and interpretation.
Looking Back and Seeing Now opened in the summer of 2015, when police and civilian murders of Black people seemed relentless. I addressed a need for solace and respite by transforming the gallery into a space for contemplation and reflection. I included monumental portraits of my southern ancestors from the early 1900s drawn from photographs that I found in my grandmother’s photo album. The stories told to me by my grandmother of KKK cross burnings left me to imagine what these women must have witnessed, what they had seen, and what they’d had to endure. Theatrical lights and mirrored tambourines cast moving reflections and shadows onto the gallery walls, activating the space into an immersive experience in which the viewer became a part. As the mirrored tambourines spun, viewers saw themselves reflected in the piece and the piece, in turn, watched them back. Creating a space where the past and present met, the exhibition asked: what has changed and what remains the same?
LT: In the case of Requiem for Charleston, my decision to use the tambourine was deliberate, even though the tambourine isn't typically used in AME worship. In the days following the massacre, the tambourine began to emerge as a symbol of unity and healing. Crowds of people took to the streets in support of Mother Emanuel Church, some ringing bells and others playing tambourines. There was a news story of young African-American girl who was encouraged to play her tambourine louder by her older half sister, who was white. And then there was the “lone tambourine” that played in the balcony during a private concert by Pharrell Williams at the church some months later.
I replaced some of the tambourine drums with black lambskin and wrote the names of the victims in pyrographic calligraphy using a wood burning tool. The tambourines are installed in a square on its side so that the axis forms a cross. Growing up in the black church, playing the tambourine was a kind of ecstasy, but here the tambourines pay silent tribute to the women and men who were slain.
ZJM: What’s next for you, Lava?
LT: I currently have work on view in the group exhibition, Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, which runs through August 25th. The exhibition is in conjunction with Charles White: A Retrospective at LACMA, which recently traveled from MOMA New York. I’ll also have work on view in the traveling exhibition, Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press, at Las Cruces Museum of Art in New Mexico from May 10-July 20. I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, with projects that I can’t talk about yet as they’re still in their early stages. I’m continuing my deep dive into the history of women and the Civil Rights Movement as well as my family history and how it is intertwined with American History. Check back on my website www.lavathomas.com for future exhibitions and news.
ZJM: Thank you so much for sharing your work and some insights into your practice.
LT: Thank you, the pleasure was all mine.
All images © Lava Thomas