• Mama Bush in Mickalene Thomas's painting 'Dim All The Lights', 2009 (Mickalene Thomas)Source: Mickalene Thomas
Contemporary African American artist Mickalene Thomas has always had a close relationship with her mother and muse Sandra 'Mama' Bush. When Sandra was diagnosed with terminal kidney disease in 2010 Mickalene begins to film an intimate portrait of her, showcasing her charismatic personality and struggles overcome during her life as a model, a mother and a muse.
Jerico Mandybur

29 Apr 2016 - 5:35 PM  UPDATED 29 Apr 2016 - 5:35 PM

What was it like filming your mother?

It was cathartic. It allowed me to resolve issues as a human being, as a daughter. And it’s important for me as an artist because I use my mother in my work — I have since 2000 — so it seemed like the next step when I learned she was dying. It made sense to me. When I photographed her in my studio, we always talked, we had conversations, but they were never recorded, they were just for us. This was different. I wanted people to really know her. How did she get to this point? What was her story? I’m interested in beyond 'hello'. And I wanted to learn about my mother as a person — to separate from my relationship to her as her daughter and look at her as the human being she was. But I also wanted some of my questions answered. 

What do you think it is about your representations of your mother Sandra in your art that are so appealing to people? 

She was amazing. She was was a force. I try to explain that to people. That’s why I wanted to do this film, I really wanted to articulate visually where the work was coming from. I photographed my mother for many years and painted her and I wanted people to see the source: it’s my mother. I pulled everything I am and do from her, she was a fierce human being — such magnetism and energy, even when she was sick. You saw her: she looked good, she got made up, she wanted to present herself. That was a strength she always carried. And I’ve always coveted and loved and admired and adored that about her, despite me being her daughter, despite how complicated our relationship was.

I may have hated her sometimes because she wasn’t the person I wanted her to be, but I loved her stature, I loved her strength — through the end. 

What aspects of Sandra's personality and story to you hope your work captures?

My mother was my first model — she’d been a professional model, and she was absolutely gorgeous. 6’ 1, very fashionable, full of energy and confident.

I’ve always been inspired by her glamour, strength, tenacity, and her sustained elegance and charisma in the face of obstacles.

The film shows that she does fulfill her dream, despite all of the things that happened to her, and that made me very happy.

How did you feel about the end result, and what do you hope viewers take away from it? 

I found that there are such complex layers to everyone’s stories. The film focused on my mother’s story in particular, but throughout my work, I like to portray real people, people that I personally know, people that are my friends and lovers, and not fictitious subjects. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to discover some of the muses of Manet or Matisse or Courbet - who are these people? Where do they come from?

They have a history, and I’m interested in those complex layers of someone’s past defining who they are.  When I made this documentary, it definitely became a celebration of my mother and her own journey, but also a way for the viewer to experience and see how, through art, my mother was able to achieve her own accomplishments, her dream.

By becoming my muse, she’s become the person she’s always wanted to be. And I want the same kind of strength and boldness to shine through all of my viewers. 

The documentary Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman premieres on NITV on Sunday, 8 of May at 9pm.