Lava Thomas: Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
September 8, 2018 - October 27, 2018
Rena Bransten Gallery is pleased to present our first solo exhibition by Lava Thomas. Thomas (b. Los
Angeles, CA) is a Bay Area-based visual artist whose work explores the events, figures, and movements
that inform and shape our individual and collective histories. Central to her practice are notions of
visibility, resilience, and healing, whether the artworks memorialize victims of racial violence, transform
galleries into contemplative spaces, or stretch the conventions of portraiture and representation.
Thomas is a multi-disciplinary artist and master draftsman whose oeuvre includes photography,
costume design, painting, large-scale installations, and sculpture. She has for the past two years been
focused on the under-acknowledged role of African American women in the Civil Rights Movement.
This exhibition centers around a new series of graphite and conté pencil portraits based on mugshots of
the women of the 1955 yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, illuminating and emphasizing the
leadership and sustained labor of women to the boycott’s success. While mugshots intrinsically aim to
dehumanize and criminalize, Thomas’ life size, richly detailed portraits offer a counter narrative.
Leigh Raiford, photo historian and associate professor of African American Studies at UC Berkeley, and
essayist for the accompanying exhibition catalog, notes:
“We might start with the striking visibility of Thomas’ fine line work—intentional,
deliberate—which renders these women as highly regarded sitters rather than
mechanically-reproduced subjects of the state. The purposeful clarity of each hair,
each coat thread, each worry line, functions here as a steady etching of history
that needs to be carefully attended to. Further exceeding her source material,
Thomas has accentuated eyes and hands, underscored a smirk or a side eye. The
large-scale portraits, many times the size of a mugshot, are meant to be displayed
so that our eyes look directly into theirs, a demand for mutual recognition.”
Thomas acknowledges the egalitarian nature of graphite and conté pencil with this new series. The
accessibility of the pencil is paired in this exhibition with a corollary body of work based on the
tambourine, an intuitive instrument rooted in cultures around the globe and associated with gospel
music, freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement, protests, and marches.
This exhibition is in dialogue with the current political and social climate of the country: the resurgence
of white nationalism, the rise of racial hostility and lethal violence, the ascent of white male supremacy
in the Executive Branch of government, and the methodical erosion of hard won Civil Rights laws and
protections by the current administration.
Lava Thomas’ work has been exhibited at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco; the
International Print Center New York; the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco; the Bolder
Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado; the California African American Museum, Los Angeles; the
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; and the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art,
Napa, California, among many other venues. Her work is in the permanent collections of the United
States Consulate in Johannesburg, South Africa; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington,
DC; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She studied
at UCLA’s School of Art Practice and received a BFA from California College of the Arts.
*A catalog with essay by Leigh Raiford will accompany the exhibition*