Tschabalala Self challenges viewers to see these bodies as vessels of exciting difference and much more than caricatures.
By Tyra A. Seals
By using fabric, thread, and collage techniques to circumvent traditional definitions of artistic media, Tschabalala Self’s large scale paintings and installations illustrate full, marginalized bodies with grace, pride, and power. The Harlem-born artist invokes traditions used by her predecessors—female family members who mostly manipulated textiles for functional purposes—and embodies how artistic lineage for Black women artists is like energy in that it is constantly taking new shape and form instead of disappearing.
Self’s work regularly features the ample breasts, thighs, hips, and buttocks of the characters she creates; they challenge viewers to see these bodies as vessels of exciting difference and much more than the caricatures and fantasies that they have been compartmentalized and assigned to. The artist’s paintings are part of an ever-evolving world, where individuals of color can express and cater to themselves as the majority without overwhelming stigma. Tschabalala’s new and older works are a timely celebration of the beauty in the alternative as we enter a new year and decade where we seemingly have greater access to othering through ethnicity, gender, and body size and shape than we ever have.
Companies like Weight Watchers, which recently rebranded itself as MyWW, have made poor attempts to embellish their age-old tactics through points, milestones, and color-organized tracking systems. These efforts barely hide the deeply historical, fatphobic assertion that their members are little more than failed thin people. In Princess (2018), Tschabalala Self combats this notion by portraying a woman sitting on the edge of a large chair with legs turned toward the right and generous thighs cascading along the chair’s side. The strands of her afro are crafted with their own individual personality, but come together as a halo that delicately frames her face. These and other references—like the cloth in the collar of her dress that features Princess Tiana from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog—throughout the work emphasize the woman’s confident, powerful air that her body contributes to rather than hinder. The artist further reduces culturally-sanctioned ideologies which claim that fat people are incapable of assimilating into society without becoming thin through Home (2019). In it, a woman in a bright red dress embraces a man dressed in all black. His head circles hers, and she places her manicured hand on her knee as she gathers his chin with the other hand and they become just close enough to share a kiss or sweet word. This particular work demonstrates the beauty and potential of romantic affection for fat or otherwise full-figured women in a world that winces at the possibility.
Visual and material culture that celebrates freedom for marginalized bodies is especially pertinent and necessary given the systematic horrors that discourage fat people from leading the substantive, fulfilling lives they deserve. Self’s work is unapologetic in its stance, and I consider the fifth and final iteration of her installation project Bodega Run (2019) at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles to be one of her most unique. The neon signage fixed to the exterior boasting that EBT is accepted and the store is open—in both English and Spanish—reflects the diasporic patronage that frequents bodegas. The sign’s messaging is significant and plays a role in who will enter and feel most comfortable while shopping; Black and brown people are regularly profiled at convenience and department stores alike. Inside, the linoleum floor is painted in red, green, and black stripe reminiscent of the pan-African flag and possibly a nod to David Hammons’ African-American Flag (1990), which flies afront the Studio Museum in Harlem where Self was a 2018-2019 Artist-In-Residence.
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The subjects throughout the room are depicted in a number of bending and stooping positions to access the ice cream, sodas, candy, and chips arranged on and around the shelves. One subject wears a bright red sports bra and shorts paired with purple flip flops and nails to match while in a different panel, a muscular figure in black and gray athleticwear stands at attention to browse the items below. A female subject to the viewer’s right bends over the ice cream case with their left hand placed at the lower back for support; heels elongate their legs and accentuate their shapely form. Arguably the most notable of these subjects is a human figure placed just before the painted refrigerators along the back walls that is bent face first toward the ground. Their knees are slightly turned out, and their firmly planted legs allow their hips and buttocks to be raised upward and outward. Their bright red, yellow, orange and blue painted labia resemble a magic portal that intrigues and confronts viewers immediately, also yielding a certain discomfort and curiosity that encourages them to explore within the space and its many layers.
Every detail in Bodega Run—from the cans of Goya products that line the two-dimensional shelves to the attire of the customers in tank tops, flip-flops, bonnets and scarves—demonstrates Self’s careful attention to transactional, culturally-specific environments and the broad spectrum of individuals that make them what they are. In this work and throughout her career, she places blackness in its own context outside of the lens of whiteness and pairs it with questions of class and the body politic. Many more instances of such can be found within her latest show Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, her largest to date, opening at the ICA Boston on January 20th.
Tyra A. Seals is an emerging curator and aspiring professor of African diaspora art. Her research seeks to address the social, political, historical, and economic forces that affect the works of female assemblage artists across the Black Atlantic. Tyra is a proud Atlanta native and alumna of Spelman College, where she studied English and Art History and graduated cum laude in 2018. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @thetyratales.