Lava Thomas’s multidisciplinary practice inhabits the intersection of individual and shared experiences, connecting the artist’s personal stories with historical and current sociopolitical events, civil rights protests, and African American devotional acts of worship. Her expansive oeuvre, which includes drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and site-specific installations, creates sacred spaces where past and present, personal and political, spirit and body can meet. And through this reconciliation, Thomas seeks to reclaim and center acts of resilience, empowerment, and healing to create a more resonant story.
Resonance can be defined as a deep, clear, continuous sound that reverberates from an instrument to the surrounding air and echoes deep within the body. As a recurring reference to this phenomenon, Thomas uses the tambourine, a beloved artifact from her childhood experiences growing up in the Black Pentecostal Church. Her grandmother played piano and directed the choir in their church, and Thomas remembers playing the tambourines with “ecstatic abandon.” A powerful symbol for the artist that echoes the transformative experience possible in religious worship, she explains, “I approach the tambourine as a readymade object loaded with meaning: as an egalitarian instrument rooted in cultures around the globe, it speaks to our common humanity. It’s often played in the context of activism and heard during protest marches to amplify demands for justice.”
In her installations, Thomas will often alter the surfaces of the tambourines, turning all the drums to potent notes of blue, red, pink, black, grey, or yellow, and at times inscribing text using pyrographic calligraphy. In Resistance Reverb: Movements 1 & 2, fragments of powerful phrases like “Ain’t I A Woman” and “Black Lives Matter” from women activists are sprinkled throughout the surfaces of the tambourine cloud installation. And in her heart-wrenching work Requiem for Charleston, she places names on tambourine surfaces to memorialize congregants who were killed in a mass shooting inside the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. Thomas poetically assembles the tambourines like musical notes in symphonic arrangements referencing church hymns, freedom songs, or somber requiems. In her new work Clouds of Joy, she assembles tambourines into nebulous, cloud-like forms, and scatters mirrored surfaces throughout the arrangement. The effect for the viewer is a sense of participation in the artist’s collective musical score.
– Vicki Phung Smith