Included in Tschabalala Self’s acclaimed exhibition at the Frye Art Museum last year – her solo debut in an American institution – Spare Moment is a virtuosic large-scale work dating from the dawn of her practice. Executed in 2015, it demonstrates the vibrant multi-media language that would propel her onto the global stage the following year. Two resplendent characters emerge from a textured tangle of fabric and paint, tantalisingly poised mid-conversation. Abstract eye-like forms – motifs that recur throughout her work – float hypnotically in the background, pushing the composition to the brink of dissolution. Currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, Self draws upon her experience of growing up in Harlem to confront issues surrounding race, sexuality and gender. By deliberately exaggerating her subjects’ physical features, she highlights the stereotypes and expectations surrounding the black female body, reclaiming it on her own terms. In the present work, Self’s women take full ownership of their forms and the space they inhabit. Their fabric bodies loom majestically into three dimensions; the eyes in the background stare out from the canvas, boldly challenging our gaze. ‘My subjects are fully aware of their conspicuousness and are unmoved by their viewers’, she asserts. ‘Their role is not to show, explain, or perform but rather “to be”. In being, their presence is acknowledged and their significance felt’ (T. Self, quoted at https://tschabalalaself.com/about [accessed 11 December 2019]).
Initially conceived as ‘avatars’ for herself, though later acknowledged as members of a wider fictional community, Self’s subjects are heavily rooted in her own observations. As a teenager at a predominantly white high school, she felt profoundly aware of her race, noting in particular the different ways in which black and white women were sexualised by society and the media. During her early years at art school – first Bard, and later Yale – she began to experiment with manipulating images of black women from magazine cut-outs and music videos, drawing inspiration from artists such as Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence. Ultimately, however, it was closer to home that Self found her artistic voice: in the medium of textiles. Her mother, she recalls, was a talented seamstress who would create outfits for her and her three older sisters, often repurposing scraps of old fabric and turning them into new garments or furnishings. After her death, Self took up the sewing machine herself, using her mother’s collection of swatches to explore ways in which painting and textiles might join hands. Treating the canvas as simply another fabric, her multi-layered visions breathe new life into centuries of figurative tradition. Simultaneously personal and universal, her characters are composites of different textures and patterns that meld and collide: ciphers, she suggests, for the notion of ‘one individual being made from lots of distinct elements’ (T. Self, quoted in ‘An Individual Is Made of Many Parts: Tschabalala Self Interviewed by Sasha Bonét’ Bomb Magazine, 20 November 2018). In the rich, chaotic tapestries of the present work, this notion finds joyful expression.