Found Pieces Of Civil Rights History Spur This Artist To Take Action


artwork with tambourines

When creating installations, artist Lava Thomas sometimes uses tambourines for their cultural significance.

They were there all along, waiting to be found—mugshots of protesters from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, unearthed in 2004 in an Alabama sheriff’s office basement. Some of the faces, like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were familiar. But the visages of many of the women who formed the backbone of the civil rights campaign were unknown to the public.

Their discovery galvanized Berkeley-based multidisciplinary artist Lava Thomas, who dedicates her practice to giving grace and grandeur to such overshadowed figures. In her portraits and installations, their legacy comes alive. “I see my role as visualizing those hidden stories,” says Thomas.

lava thomas with model exhibition in studio

Thomas stands with a model of an exhibition opening at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in April 2022.

lava thomas portrait of relative

Thomas also uses family photos as inspiration for her art, such as the portrait of a man she believes to be her great-great-great-grandfather.

lava thomas portrait of relative

Family photos serve as inspiration for her Thomas' art, such as the portrait of a female she believes is her relative.

lava thomas studio art supplies

lava thomas studio art supplies

For her, art as remembrance resonated early on during an internship at The Getty Conservation Institute. Handling centuries- old objects, “I began to understand that art could speak to you through time,” she recalls. But she also realized that nothing represented the African American experience. Making art provided a way to resist invisibility, inspiring works like her “Mugshot Portraits” series created from the Montgomery photo trove.

Grand in scale, the portraits are painstakingly rendered in hundreds of pencil strokes on paper. For Thomas, capturing each face becomes a reverential experience. “I feel like I’m a conduit for what they want the world to know,” she confesses. “It almost feels like a collaboration.”

For her installations, she carefully selects materials for their layered cultural and social associations—often incorporating tambourines, a staple in her childhood church and an instrument often used in protests. In Resistance Reverb: Movement 1, the tambourines are jubilant, floating from the ceiling in a pink cloud reflecting words by diverse feminist activists. Following the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, Requiem for Charleston became a national site of remembrance—the names of each life lost burned onto tambourines covered in black lambskin, referring to “the quintessential animal of innocence and sacrifice,” explains Thomas. The piece is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection.

Often, relatives of those Thomas memorializes reach out with stories. Watching their loved ones come to life through memories is “one of the most gratifying aspects of my work,” she says. “I believe we are in a time when our ancestors are speaking to us, and we’re listening.”