Critics’ Picks

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire, 2015, oil, pigment and fabric on canvas, 84 x 60".

Tschabalala Self, Sapphire, 2015, oil, pigment and fabric on canvas, 84 x 60".


Tschabalala Self

Parasol unit
14 Wharf Road
January 17–March 12, 2017

In 1992, Silverfish’s Lesley Rankine snarled the mantra that would launch a thousand T-shirts: HIPS. TITS. LIPS. POWER. The slogan took the carving up of female flesh and reversed it into a roll call for the reservoirs of strength built into a woman’s body.

Tschabalala Self’s portraits perform a similar inversion, defying dominant tropes in popular representations of the black female body. They do this by dismantling those same bodies and reassembling them in ways that transform their perceived vulnerability into blistering inviolability. Self’s “paintings” (as the artist chooses to refer to her fabric-based mixed-media collages) are directly informed by her experience with printmaking. Each body is built bit by bit, its curves formed by swatches of patterned fabrics, animal prints, or Calvin Klein denim, while additional details are stamped onto the surface using nontraditional materials such as radiator grills or synthetic hair. Self’s figures take up the familiar postures of social-media selfies and escort ads, only with a frankness that decries coquetry. As with Rankine’s winning lyric, body parts are isolated, amplified, and reconstituted as an army of swooning calves, nipples like ten-gallon hats, and pussies like peach pits amid voluptuous hips. Blending the grotesqueries of Hans Bellmer’s poupées with the cool self-possession of Mickalene Thomas’s portraits, these distortions register not so much as if violence has been inflicted on the body, mangling its contours, but rather as if the body were ballooning into its desired proportions. As this survey demonstrates, there is more than one way to leave an impression.