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Murat Yükselir/The Globe and Mail

In artist Mickalene Thomas’s exhibit, Femmes Noires, she reimagines many of her greatest influences – from Impressionism to actor Diahann Carroll – as vibrant, often glimmering paintings and evocative videos and installations. Her take on black history and pop culture has made her one of the art world’s brightest chroniclers of the black queer feminist experience today.

The exhibit (on through March 24 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto) includes a style of installation Thomas is known for: a 1970s-era living room strewn with her favourite books, alongside a video of different women dressed as Eartha Kitt, singing her song, Los Angelitos Negros. Each woman represented in the exhibit played a part in Thomas’s 1970s upbringing, as do the authors of the books, most taken from her own personal collection. “There’s a thread through all the books, which is black woman experiences through family, love, relationships, society and politics and how we traverse in the world,” she says. “When we talk about black life in the diaspora, we tend to box it in, but the cut of that quilt is wide with experience, whether its Caribbean or European or Asian. We have to recognize that there’s diversity within our blackness.”

Of the hundreds on display, Thomas selected a few of her favourites.

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Some of Thomas’s favourite books.

Joseph Saraceno/The Globe and Mail

The Color Purple

“For me, that book is about a community of women and how it depicts sisterhood, strength and empowerment and also vulnerability and perseverance. It also touches on a lot of difficult issues and presents itself in a way that prompts discourse and conversations that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. I love that [Alice] Walker puts so much about black America into one story. It was also the first time for me to see a love story between two women.”

The Color Purple by Alice Walker, $21.50 at Indigo.

For Colored Girls

“I love when writers are courageous enough to put topics such as rape and abuse in written form because I think it reaches a wider audience.”

For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange, $11.45 through amazon.ca.

Chasing Utopia

“This book [asks] ‘What type of world are we living in as black people that we desire?”

Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni, $19.99 at Indigo.

If Someone Says ‘You Complete Me,’ Run!

“[Whoopi Goldberg] has a great talent for using her platform to speak truth through humour about how we always look outside ourselves to define who we are. You shouldn’t be the source of completion for anyone, you should want to be that for yourself.”

If Someone Says ‘You Complete Me,’ Run! by Whoopi Goldberg, $28.03 at Indigo.

Sister Outsider

“It really helped redefine who I am as a woman and how I saw myself as a queer black woman. It really grounded me – [Audre] Lorde really has a way with her words of allowing you to find yourself within her.”

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, $21.99 at Glad Day Bookshop.

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