A majestic multi-media vision stretching over two metres in height, Sapphire is an important early work by Tschabalala Self. Illustrated on the cover of the catalogue for her 2017 exhibition at Parasol Unit, London, it captures her desire to reclaim the black female body through art. Against a mottled blue background, Self’s protagonist dominates the canvas in resplendent technicolour, composed of geometric painted fragments and collaged pieces of fabric. Drawing upon her own experience, Self creates fictional characters whose deliberately exaggerated bodily features seek to highlight stereotypes surrounding race and gender. ‘I aspire to hold space and create a cultural vacuum in which these bodies can exist for their own pleasure and self-realisation’, she explains. ‘Free of the other’s assertions and the othering gaze … My subjects are fully aware of their conspicuousness and are unmoved by their viewers. 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 4 September 2019]). Created in 2015, at the dawn of her practice, the present work is a powerful assertion of this goal. Since then, Self has achieved international recognition: her first solo museum exhibition, Bodega Run, travelled to the Yuz Museum, Shanghai and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles between 2018 and 2019. She made her American museum debut earlier this year at the Frye Art Museum, Seattle.
Born in Harlem – where she recently completed a residency at the Studio Museum – Self began drawing and painting at a young age. She devoured children’s books of works by artists such as Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence, and was particularly inspired by the latter’s use of shape and form in his portrayal of African-American narratives. Her works also invite comparison with artists such as Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, who similarly manipulated their subjects’ forms to expressive ends. Closer to home, Self has acknowledged the influence of her mother, whose talents as a seamstress would come to inform the artist’s use of textile-based media. ‘My mother could sew very well, she could make an entire dress or outfit’, she recalls. ‘She collected lots of fabrics for patches, clothing, curtains and pillow covers. I still have some of the dresses she made me for special occasions … My mother’s sense of style has shaped mine. I enjoy bold colours and complicated patterns. Her ingenuity with limited materials and her ability to transform the old into new has influenced the way I approach creative projects’ (T. Self in conversation with Z. Ardalan, in Tschabalala Self, exh. cat., Parasol Unit, London, 2017, p. 46). As she goes on to explain, her blending of paint and textured fabric blurs the distinction between fact and fiction in her work, allowing the viewer to engage with her practice in both personal and cultural terms. With its complex, captivating surface, Sapphire is a bold demonstration of this approach.