Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self on double consciousness, her artistic pantheon, and “Out of Body”

Tschabalala Self, Ol’ Bay, 2019, painted canvas, fabric, digital rendering on canvas, hand colored photocopy, photocopy, paper, Flashe, gouache and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 84".

Through an exaggerative figuration that embraces painting, sewing, assemblage, as well as a sensuous and implacable charisma, New Haven–based artist Tschabalala Self invites us to rethink how bodies are marked by race and gender while crafting her own expanding visual universe. Her exhibition “Tschabalala Self: Out of Body” runs January 20 to July 5, 2020, at the ICA Boston, and will be her largest solo exhibition to date.

“OUT OF BODY,” the title of my upcoming exhibition at the ICA Boston, was also the name of my first New York show. It’s a kind of double entendre; at that moment in 2015, I was thinking a lot about identity politics in regard to Blackness and womanhood. I don’t feel this way now, but then, I aspired as a maker to transcend these conversations, which seemed limiting and conventional. In that regard, to be “out of body” was to escape one’s otherness. The second meaning invoked an existentialism of sorts. I wanted to make room for a conversation about black spirituality that exceeds highly racialized rhetoric. Therefore, “out of body” also refers to a metaphysical experience.

When I was younger, I felt there was something aspirational about escaping identity. Now, I don’t think there’s freedom in any lived experience that’s devoid of it. All artists create identity-based work, but only some artists are asked about their identity politic. We are all hindered and damaged by misogyny, racism, classism, and heteronormativity. If some artists seem to make work that is ostensibly unconcerned with these realities, it’s because they are not made to feel marginalized by them. Ultimately, my identity has been a source of power for me, something that’s been very generative to explore. I don’t like to draw a separation between my inner and social selves. Nonetheless, for my own protection I must be conscious of how I am viewed. This double consciousness has afforded me a great imagination, one that allows me to project all of my sentiments, desires, and angst onto the characters in my work.

The ICA exhibition will be divided into three rooms. The first will examine some of my older works—their composition, materials, and formal qualities. A second, larger room will feature selections from three distinct projects: my figures in interior domestic spaces (2016–20), the “Bodega Run” series (2017–19), and my more recent “Street Scenes,” (2018–19). All the paintings in this part of the show will situate the figures within specific environments and narratives. Milk crates originally used for “Bodega Run” will now serve as plinths for two of my figurative sculptures. For a while, I placed all of my figures within colored fields; that liminality helped me think more clearly about their composition and performativity. My work in this room departs from this practice. It’s nice to see the stories and the context around my characters expand. I really identify with my subjects, and pour a lot of my own life into theirs. At some point, I would like do a show with a really coherent narrative thread, something cinematic. When I imagine my characters together, I picture them existing in the same universe, like a pantheon. They are all different, yet together articulate one way of being and seeing.

In the third room there will be more mature iterations of the figure in liminal space. These are more contemplative than visceral, and push the viewer to investigate the psychology of the subjects depicted. For example, the female figure in Pant, 2018, is straddling a phantom appendage: a third yellow leg whose phallic nature suggests the masculinity within her persona. In Origin, 2018, a void opens from the core of a woman’s gut, a gesture that refers to the reproductive potential of the character. This infinity loop pictorially recedes into the subject’s body; however, it is literally built up through various layers of painted canvas and other textiles, evoking the metaphysical power of her physical form. Sock, 2018, is an intimate work that simply depicts a languid male figure at leisure.

Although most of my works depict their own unique avatar, there’s one female figure, from Milk Chocolate, 2017, that recurs. She’s a coquette of sorts. Unlike some of my other characters, I feel like she is hyperaware of the viewer and enjoys the attention projected onto her. I would describe her as confident, funny, sexy, and self-possessed. She’s in another painting called Ol’ Bay, 2019, which will be in this exhibition. Originally it was a reproduction of Milk Chocolate that was made for a television show. When the canvas was returned to my studio, I just repurposed it. I feel like materials carry the energy of wherever they were previously used, and that you can capture that energy and redirect it somewhere else. I hope that people will walk away for my works with a deeper understanding of my practice, but beyond all of that, I hope they’ll gain insight into themselves and into their own circumstance—perhaps their own identity.