Mississippi Homecoming

Felandus Thames Returns to Jackon

Felandus Thames. Photo: Renee CoxThe Yale MFA program could occupy an entire chapter in a future history of African American art and Felandus Thames would likely hold a prominent place within it. Noted African American, Yale MFA graduates from the 1960s include Howardena Pindell, William T. Williams, and Bob Reed, who joined the Yale art faculty and has become a campus legend both for his rigor and out-sized imagination.

Over the past two decades, the MFA program has become a storied pipe-line for expediting the transit of students from New Haven to exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at leading galleries in New York and beyond. These students include Abegail Deville, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley.  Recent grads also include Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Nigerian artist who has won prestigious prizes and now makes her home in the U.S.  Thames, a 2008 graduate of Jackson State University, received his Yale MFA in 2010.

Felandus Thames, Inconvenient Truth  24 x 24 x 4Felandus Thames, Harlem Prose, 2011, hair brush installationBut getting through the Yale graduate program and then attracting major art world recognition is not an automatic route to success. JSU art history professor Yumi Park Huntington says that "one needs to prepare for the Yale program."  

"Before enrolling, he had already experienced many different aspects of life that helped his attitudes toward racial issues and social conflicts in the South mature," says Huntington. "These layers of life experience made him a stronger and more insightful artist."  

Thames’s solid Southern upbringing provided a good foundation for his future success. His mom quilted; his dad painted; and the art program at Jackson State University provided strong instruction in studio arts and art history, close mentoring, and exhibition opportunities though the campus gallery.  Reflecting on this experience, he says:

Studying at Jackson State University was integral in the development of my social and political awareness, which has translated directly into my studio practice. HBCUs have historically served as incubators for the contemporary Black aesthetic, and I feel that the trajectory of my work is a part of that canon. Studying with the late Dr. Anderson Macklin, I became hyperaware that I belong to a diasporic tradition that extended for centuries and that I am small vessel in the wake of preeminent figures like Bearden, Biggers, Catlett, Donaldson, Douglas, Duncanson, Gilliam, Hammons, Lawrence, Motley, Savage, Tanner, Weems, and countless other artists. It became apparent that it was not enough to make work in dialog with those artist, but it was more important to expand the conversation. 

Thames’ work evolved dramatically during his study at Yale. There he developed relationships with the renowned scholar of African and African Diaspora art Robert Farris Thompson and former MoMA curator Robert Storr.  Thames also seized every opportunity to visit the New York art scene and became acquainted with accomplished artists such as Peter Halley, Carrol Dunham, Byron Kim and Lyle Ashton Harris.   

In the photo above, Thames is shown with the book, Harlem Gallery and Other Poems by Melvin Tolson (1898-1966). For his installation series of hair brushes, Thames removed bristles from the brushes to make letters that form fragments of Tolson's poems.

Felandus Thames, The Bishop Getting on the Bus, oil paint on stretch canvas over panel, 72 x 48 x 3.5Thames’ recent group exhibitions include Else, Tilton Gallery, New York; Curate New York and Black Portrait, Rush Gallery New York; T_XT_RT and Voices of Home, Jenkins Johnson, New York; Art by Choice and Artist by Artist, Mississippi Museum of Art, Aspen Museum of Art and Miami Basel. Recent solo exhibitions were held at Tilton Gallery and Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York and a two-person show at Columbia University. 

In fall 2014, Felandus Thames returned home for a solo show at his alma mater.  Yumi Park Huntington, who joined the JSU faculty in 2011, had heard enthusiastic accounts about Thames from her colleagues. "He has been an inspiration for other JSU students who have gone on to study in good MFA programs, and his achievement stimulates other JSU art majors," she says. Her review of the exhibition follows.  

Stuck Between ’lizabeth Taylor’s Toes

Painter and installation artist Felandus Thames’ Stuck Between ’lizabeth Taylor’s Toes confronted audiences with various issues of race, gender, and culture through evocative perceptions.  The exhibition traces the course of his development by including works ranging from his MFA thesis to current projects. This synoptic display suggests a trajectory where Thames plays with subtle boundaries between two-dimensional and three-dimensional works. 

To express his own interpretation of the lives of African Americans living in the post civil rights period, Thames uses everyday objects such as used tea bags, hairbrushes, photographs, children’s wooden blocks, do-rags, acrylic, nails, glues, and paper. These objects become the core media that connect between Thames and his audience. Thames, then, challenges the viewer’s perception of the objects by altering and transforming them: coloring on used tea bags, dismantling hairbrushes, and relocating do-rags to the floor. His playful combination of various media invites his audience to question racial, gender, social and cultural aspects of life in the post civil rights period. 

Felandus Thames Conception of a Succubus, 2010. photo: Yumi HuntingtonConception of a Succubus combines overlapping layers of African American lips that metamorphose into the flowery motifs reflecting a secular world. This simultaneously grotesque and sexy image mesmerizes audiences as if they were looking into a kaleidoscope, a device that changes our expectations and perceptions by turning them on end. Thames sublimates conventional perceptions of the black body in history into a balance of critical sarcasm and light humor that scrutinizes gender and racial issues. 

Felandus Thames, War Was Over, 2010. photo: Yumi HuntingtonWar Was Over! is a canvas covered with hundreds of used bags of black tea that serve as the ground for three clear black words and one exclamation point: War Was Over! The provocative phrase stimulates the “which war?” Upon further reflection, each stained and wrinkled black tea bag seems to represent an individual African-American life after the Emancipation Proclamation and civil rights movement. The legible word, War, contains multiple layers of meaning, reflecting the complex history of racial issues and approaches to change over the past several centuries.  

Thames proves that even mundane objects have the power to provoke thought and change the conventional perceptions determined by tradition and culture. His visual expressions of race and gender issues especially provoke audiences to emerge from their conservative and comfortable zones of habitual thinking. His articulate and rich approach, as well as the subtlety and nuance displayed in this exhibition, clearly reveals his goal to foster discussion of African American life in the South during the twenty-first century. 

Stuck Between ’lizabeth Taylor’s Toes, Jackson State University, Dollye M.E. Robinson Gallery, Jackson, Mississippi, September 4 — November 6, 2014.

Yumi Park Huntington, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of art history at Jackson State University.

Thanks to JSU Gallery director LaNeysa Harris for helping to facilitate this article.