‘Pencils are my weapons’: Lava Thomas tackles lack of art by Black women in BAMPFA collection

The Berkeley artist was asked to sort through the museum’s holdings for a new show. She sought a way to hang erasure on the walls.

Lava Thomas. Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery

Soon after agreeing to co-curate a show at BAMPFA, artist Lava Thomas almost backed out.

“I am seriously considering pulling out,” she wrote in her journal. “But absenting myself is not an effective form of protest it’s a form of self-erasure and self-silencing.”

Thomas was venting her frustration upon discovering the dearth of Black female artists included in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s permanent collection.

Along with Bay Area artists Tammy Rae Carland, David Huffman, and John Zurier, she’d been invited to curate and select artworks from the museum’s 28,000-piece permanent collection for the exhibition, The Artist’s Eye, which opened Saturday and runs through July 17.

The Artist’s Eye, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., through July 17

Instead of pulling out, Thomas persevered. In an era reckoning with racial injustice after the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, she felt it imperative to use the invitation to examine our cultural institutions and urge them to enact change. “I view the world through the lens of a Black woman, so my practice is very much about giving voice to Black women,” she said while speaking over Zoom from her West Berkeley studio.

Thomas is a multi-disciplinary artist who divides her time between Menlo Park, where her family lives, and her studio and home in Berkeley. Although she considers drawing to be the backbone of her art practice, her work has always had seeds of activism. “Pencils are my weapons,” she said on The Cerebral Women Art Talks podcast. “I almost can’t remember when I didn’t have a pencil in my hand.”

Raised in Central Los Angeles by her aunts and her hard-working, churchgoing grandmother, Thomas credits these women with demonstrating the importance of community leadership and encouraging her artistic development.  

Lava Thomas, Self Portrait, 2013. Courtesy of the artist

Yet because she was a working mother, it was decades before she could afford to pursue her art degree, first at UCLA then at California College of the Arts. While at UCLA, she interned at the Getty Museum’s antiquities and conservation department. She was captivated by Carrie Mae Weem’s exhibit, From Here I Saw What Happened, and I Cried, which featured a series of appropriated photographs mined from daguerreotypes of enslaved people. Weems had enlarged and colored the images blood red to express the subjects’ history of violence. The horror and humanity of the pictures made an indelible impact on Thomas. She decided that instead of cleaning and conserving objects that she viewed in many ways as being wrapped up in a history of oppression, she would “spend my time, talent, energy, and labor to create works that spoke to my freedom.”

In conversation, Thomas is thoughtful and engaging. Many of her comments begin with a laugh — a burst of energy that punctuates the profound aim of her mission: to use her art to shine a light on the omitted narratives, both dark and uplifting, of African Americans in American culture.

“I think of myself as someone who excavates history and makes it visible, especially hidden histories.” Given her training in art conservation, Thomas is fascinated by archival material and ephemera and often uses historical documents as a jumping-off point for her art. In 2016, two years after a box of records was discovered in a Montgomery County jail, Thomas began her seminal series, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These are 14 drawings depicting largely unknown Black women whose protest and leadership during the boycott put their lives and livelihoods in danger. They endured arrest (which is how their names and photographs appeared in jail records) and violence but were then forgotten by history. By enlarging their images and rendering them in scrupulous, loving detail, Thomas reveals the women’s dignity and bravery. Drawing with a pencil on paper allowed her to emphasize the vulnerability and erasure of Black women’s leadership roles in the Civil Rights movement. “Using fragile materials speaks to how easily that history can be erased.”

Lava Thomas, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Alberta J. James, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Indeed, Thomas has direct experience with near erasure. In 2018, the San Francisco Arts Commission selected her proposed monument of the author Maya Angelou to sit in front of the San Francisco Public Library. But a pro-forma meeting to greenlight her project turned into a fiasco. San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani intervened, saying the city wanted a traditional sculpture. Thomas’s design, while not radical, aimed for a fresh way of representing Angelou with a 9-foot-tall, elegant bronze book. As the city began the proposal process anew, Thomas stood her ground, questioning the commission’s hypocrisy. Why were they actively engaged in removing symbols of white supremacy all over the city while simultaneously seeking to honor Angelou with the same visual language that belonged to that awful tradition? After months, Thomas’s proposal was reinstated — with praise — and last month her updated design for Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman was unanimously approved by the SFAC’s Visual Arts Committee. Because of setbacks due to supply chains, Thomas said the monument should be installed in April 2023.

That process created a change in Thomas that had started with the Mugshot series, she said. “If I was going to represent the lives of these women as an artist, I also had a responsibility in my own actions to honor their legacies.”

Exploring BAMPFA’s permanent collection was an eye-opener for Thomas. She was aware of the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in museum collections nationwide. A 2019 study conducted by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that 85% of the works in the collections of all major U.S. museums were created by white artists, 87% by men and only 1.2% by Black artists. Since then, museums have declared their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. But the battle is uphill. For Thomas, looking into the stacks of her hometown museum in a city known for its political activism was both a personal and a political encounter.

She was delighted to discover among BAMPFA’s holdings was Betye Saar’s historical collage, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972.

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Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“This year is the 50th anniversary of Saar’s art-historical landmark,” Thomas said, referring to the art piece in which Saar transformed the derogatory “mammy” figure of Aunt Jemima into a Black revolutionary. “It was collected by the museum the year it was created. That was a pleasant surprise.”

But the unpleasant surprise — one Thomas’s installation underscores — was encountering the scarcity of Black female artists among BAMPFA’s collection. Thomas explained that “if you take out the quilt collection [3,000 quilts by African American artists gifted by Eli Leon in 2019], only 59 objects out of the 25,000 pieces are by Black women. The numbers are abysmal.” Furthermore, BAMPFA, an integral part of the University of California with strong ties to the faculty, only owns one small work by a Black woman directly affiliated with UC Berkeley’s art practice department: a drawing by Mary Lovelace Neal. “O’Neal was known for monumental paintings,” Thomas said. “She taught at Berkeley for 21 years and chaired the department for six years. There hasn’t been an intentional effort on the museum’s part to acquire the work.”

For her curated installation, Thomas placed O’Neal’s small drawing alone on a dark blue wall to highlight “the lack of a large canvas by O’Neal in the BAMPFA collection.”

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Installation shot, from left to right: Betye Saar, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Mildred Howard, Parenthetically Speaking (It’s Just a Matter of Speech), 2010. Mary Lovelace O’Neal, Untitled, from the series Elegant Miniatures from San Francisco and Kyoto, 1982. Photo credit: Kelly Sullivan

The 59 objects Thomas counted as being created by Black women came from an informal list once compiled for an academic class, said Julie Rodrigues Widholm, BAMPFA’s executive director. She explained that the museum hasn’t kept historical data on the race and gender of the artists in the collection. “In the future, it would require a very careful process that would take into consideration an artist’s self-identification,” Widholm said.

For the work Thomas created specifically for the exhibition, Aspects of the Artist’s Dilemma, she excerpted from her journals, reflected on the painful process of interrogating the collection and, on video, read aloud a series of racial justice statements from museums responding to the Black Lives Matter protests. The result is a brave rhetorical questioning and call to action.

“BAMPFA stands beside Thomas, and what she is doing with her curatorial selection,” Widholm said in a Zoom interview. “We embrace the opportunity to engage in the difficult but necessary conversations the work is helping to catalyze and to advance changes that are underway toward our shared goals. I believe museums need to be self-critical and self-aware to change. We are here for this. We are Berkeley Art Museum.”

This continued shake-up of the art institutional infrastructure is what Thomas hopes to accomplish with her art and curatorial lens — “to move the needle forward.”

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Lava Thomas’s installations “Solidarity Redux: Black Lives Matter” and “Aspects of the Artist’s Dilemma” are seen at BAMPFA on March 15, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan