Since 2018, Tschabalala Self’s work has been in huge demand. Her art appears in the collections of the Rubell Museum, Miami the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo and the Hammer Museum.
In 2018 she was Artist-in-Residence at New York’s PS1, and in June last year, her work Out of Body (2015) was sold at Christie’s for £371,250 — almost five times its high estimate.
Her distinctive celebration of the female form has prompted Dean Valentine, the co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Felix Art Fair, to describe her as ‘the Anti-Picasso’. Currently Self is the subject of a major retrospective at ICA Boston, which runs until 5 July.
Tschabalala Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990. The youngest of five children (three sisters, one brother), Self grew up in a cultured household, and was aware of African-American artists such as Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) from an early age.
Self recalls how much she used to enjoy watching her older sisters getting ready for a night out, and how these observations later galvanised her feminist perspective. She has also talked about being acutely aware of being one of only a handful of black children at her school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Self’s mother ran a trade programme at the Bronx Community College. She was also a talented seamstress who repurposed old clothes into new outfits for her children.
‘I feel like my relationship to making, both formally and conceptually, are both inspired by my mother,’ Self has said.
In 2012, Self went to study fine art at Bard College in upstate New York. Struck by the different ways in which black and white women were sexualised by society and the media, she began to challenge the objectification of black women in pop culture by re-working imagery from music videos, such as 2Pac’s I Get Around, into paintings and collages.
Self developed this idea further at Yale University, where she completed an MFA in painting. But rather than focusing on the media, she looked to her own history as a black woman.
‘It is the space I occupy in the world, that is the body I came from. It is who I am and who my mother was. The more sincere a story you can articulate, the more people have access to it,’ she explained.
She started to exaggerate the physical characteristics of the black female body in her artworks in order to highlight the subconscious myths and expectations surrounding the black female form. ‘I think that this is a time for black people and people of colour to reclaim our power,’ she says. ‘We have to recreate a whole new rhetoric around our identities.’
Following the death of her mother, Self began to work with fabric, exploring the ways in which textile and painting could work together. Using her mother’s old sewing machine, she layered different fabrics and textures onto the canvas, creating vibrant collages that explore cultural attitudes toward race and gender.
One of her earliest works made at this time was Love to Saartjie, 2015, which is being offered for sale at Christie’s. It is a powerful homage to Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), the 19th-century South African Khoikhoi woman who was exploited and exhibited in Europe as the Hottentot Venus.
Baartman had been sold into slavery and toured as a curiosity until she died tragically at the age of 26. Self set out to celebrate Baartman’s humanity. ‘I recognise her as a real person and in making that painting I wanted to picture a young woman. Not an object, not a corpse.’
Self hit the headlines in 2016, when Jeffrey Deitch (former director of MOCA) included three of her artworks in his exhibition Desire at Art Basel Miami.
‘There was more interest in Tschabalala's work than in anyone else’s in the exhibition,’ he stated, ‘even Picasso and Picabia.’ While the show also featured artists such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Deitch said Self was ‘without question the hit’, adding that she was the sort of artist who emerges once in a generation.
Bodega Run, Self’s critically acclaimed 2016 exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, referred to the ‘bodegas’, or local corner stores, which are central to the communities of Harlem. For the show, the artist created a bright, graphic installation of paintings, sculptures and LED signs that captured the enduring spirit of the bodega and its cut-price economies.
As a result, the young artist began to be compared to a formidable group of African-American artists, including Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mickalene Thomas and Kerry James Marshall.
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Self is now based in Connecticut where she works out of a large warehouse building in New Haven. In 2017, while in Paris for an exhibition, a frozen pipe burst in her studio, soaking her artworks in soot, dirt and ice. Many were damaged.
‘It was like a baptism of sorts in the end,’ she said. ‘The studio emerged anew after the purging.’