Lava Thomas


April 29 through July 24, 2022

On view in the Atrium, Blackmon, and Weil Galleries


Through her skillful drawing techniques, multidisciplinary artist Lava Thomas creates portraits inspired by photographs of remarkable African American people to tackle issues of representation and memorialization. Across media, Thomas centers ideas that amplify visibility, healing, and empowerment in the face of erasure, trauma, and oppression. Lava Thomas: Homecoming will bring together, for the first time, thirteen drawings in Thomas’ revelatory series Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2018–); the multimedia installation Looking Back (2015–2021); and Decatur (2022), a new set of drawings that will debut at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. This will be the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the contemporary artist’s drawing and installation works to address the relevance of African American history to our current moment.

Thomas’s Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott depicts women who were arrested for participating in the city’s 1955–1956 boycott in Alabama. Her project takes photographic documents out of the criminal archive and translates them into life-size, handmade, loving homages. Thomas explains, “The drawings are rendered in pencil on paper to call attention to the fragility of this history, the ease with which it can be erased if it isn’t adamantly preserved.” Thomas’s reinterpretations articulate the individual personhood of these women by attentively creating the details of their facial expressions and the textures of their hair, skin, and clothing. In Thomas’s hands, the harsh light of the flash bulb used by police to capture the women’s likenesses becomes an illumination of their irrepressible courage. Across a diversity of age, size, and class, these women planned and participated in the first major action of the modern civil rights movement. By demonstrating for social equality, they sacrificed their positions and risked their modicum of safety in the hope for achieving something more. Through her Mugshot Portraits, Thomas preserves and creates a new index for the revisualization of historical memory that focuses on women’s labor as crucial, showing viewers the extraordinary in the ordinary by engaging us with the detailed beauty of conviction.

Looking Back is a site-specific installation that will transform the gallery into a meditative space. Four large-scale drawings, based on photographs belonging to the artist’s grandmother, will be installed on the walls of the gallery. They offer an opportunity for viewers to consider the relevance and beauty of our ancestral past on our lives today.

Interactive Exhibition Guide

Whether at home or in the galleries, listen to descendants of women from the Montgomery Bus Boycott artist Lava Thomas speak about her work on view in the exhibition Lava Thomas: Homecoming by clicking the link below.


Above: Artist Lava Thomas working on Alberta J. James, 2018, Photograph by John Janca, Courtesy of the artist

Header (left to right): Lava Thomas, Looking Back I, 2015, from the series, Looking Back and Seeing Now, graphite, Conté pencil, and watercolor on paper, 72 x 72 inches, Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery and the artist; Lava Thomas, Mrs. Cora L. McHaney, 2018, from the series, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, graphite and Conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 1/4 inches, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; James and Eileen Ludwig Fund and Accessions Committee Fund purchase

Working in various media, Thomas draws inspiration from her family’s Southern roots, current socio-political events, intersectional feminism, and African American protest and devotional traditions.


Organized by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, with guest curator Bridget R. Cooks, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Art History, University of California, Irvine.


Support for this exhibition was provided by lead foundation sponsors The Ford Foundation and Alabama Power Foundation.

Additional support was provided by lead sponsors David and Pamela Hornik, Southern Poverty Law Center, Lamar, and The Reparations Project; sponsors Mr. Will Hill Tankersley and Dr. Kristin Tankersley; and co-sponsors AmeriFirst Bank; Ronnie and Gwen Anderson; ASE Credit Union; Balch & Bingham, LLP; Lori and LaBarron Boone; Judge (ret.) Delores R. Boyd; Mr. and Mrs. Marvin H. Campbell II; Dr. Myrtle E. Goore and Mr. Milton D. Davis; Ms. Camille Elebash-Hill and Mr. W. Inge Hill, Jr.; Mr. Octavius Jackson; Samuel and Cathy R. Martin; Mr. and Mrs. L. Daniel Morris, Jr.; Dr. and Mrs. Alfred J. Newman, Jr.; Mayor and Mrs. Steven L. Reed; River Bank & Trust; Dr. Patricia and Attorney Jeffrey Robinson; Toy and Stacia Robinson; Mr. Steve Russell; Dr. Nichole and Attorney Mr. Robert Thompson; Warren Averett, LLC, and Valley Bank.


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