American artist Tschabalala Self creates paintings, prints, sculptures, and animations that open up a range of topics, including attitudes towards the gendered and racialised body. Self's depictions of the body are made up of shapes, pieced together using processes such as sewing, stitching, and printing, referencing craft and artistic traditions. Through collage and assemblage, the artist creates 'new ways for audiences to see and perceive the body', as she explained in her Ocula Conversation with Jareh Das.Read More
This plurality challenges singular views towards the black female body, reclaiming it within a space where new narratives can be formed. Self, who was born in Hamilton Heights in Harlem in 1990, draws much of her imagery from her life experiences. The resulting scenes exist within half-real, half-imaginary spaces that reference characteristic elements of New York, such as bodegas—small corner stores that were originally set up by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the 1940s and 50s. In 2018, Self's exhibition, Bodega Run, in Shanghai at the Yuz Museum included a series of paintings that focus on the role of bodegas as social spaces for people of colour, and where wealth disparity is rendered visible through the sale of cheap, processed or canned foods that can be purchased in exchange for food stamps. By focusing on bodegas, Self makes broader statements about wealth disparity in the United States. As the artist has stated, 'The bodega is and was a space created for people of color by people of color, to serve the needs of communities of color. A hood menagerie, the bodega is emblematic of black metropolitan life.'
Urban life has been a key focus throughout Tschabalala Self's practice, visible in her 2020 solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, titled Out of Body. The exhibition contained paintings and sculptures featuring her signature 'avatars', each one an imaginary inhabitant of her hometown, Harlem. Representing figures that are predominantly female in her practice, Self expresses that the 'fantasies and attitudes surrounding the Black female body are both accepted and rejected' in order to represent 'a body which is both exalted and abject.'
Self, who received her BA from Bard College in 2012, followed by an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from the Yale School of Art, cites her mother—who sewed as a hobby and ran a trade programme at Bronx Community College—as a key influence on both her formal and conceptual approach to making art. Her use of textiles is connected to her focus on Black female bodies, 'which have a variety of hair textures, tones, and forms', she has explained. More recently, the artist has transitioned from representing lone figures to pairing her avatars to 'define the boundaries of their personality and the extent of their community.'
Tschabalala Self has exhibited at institutions around the world, including Frye Art Museum in Seattle (Tschabalala Self, 2019); Art Omi Ghent (Tschabalala Self, 2019); Hammer Museum (Bodega Run, 2019); Tramway, Glasgow (Tschabalala Self, 2017); and Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art in London (Tschabalala Self, 2017). Her work has been presented in numerous group exhibitions, also, including Thread at Long Beach Museum of Art (2019); The Big Sleep 4th Biennial of Artists at Haus de Kunst in Munich (2019); Present Tense: Recent Gifts of Contemporary Art at Philadelphia Museum (2019); and Prospect 2019 at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (2019), to name a few. Further, Self was a recipient of the Studio Museum AIR Residency in 2018, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant in 2017.
Biography by Tessa Moldan | Ocula | 2020