Teen Vogue is highlighting the work of visual artists through intimate profiles about their experiences, career, and muses with our new column, Art School. Every month Artsy Window founder, Kiara Ventura, leads the discussion by centering artists of color and telling their stories through an informed gaze.
I couldn’t help but look closely at the pile of mixed fabrics on Tschabalala Self’s studio floor. There were jeans, linens, silks, velvets, and cotton fabric all jumbled together. The textured nature of her work is what draws me in. When surrounded by her large scale pieces, I feel a sense of coziness like when walking into my grandmother’s home and suddenly being surrounded by an array of different textiles: the soft couch, long dramatic living room curtains, and tablecloths. Via texture and large figures, Tschabalala (pronounced sha-ba-la-la) reflects the Black community, Black quotidian life, and most importantly, her story and truth.
Tschabalala Self grew up in Harlem, New York. She was the youngest of five children including her three sisters and one brother— raised in an African American household where women took up most of the space. Textiles, antique furniture, and the accumulated belongings of her family filled the home. As the youngest, she was always observing everyone, listening in on conversations, and looking up to her older sisters as they styled their outfits. Before she was born, her parents moved from New Orleans to New York City in the 1970s so her father could pursue his master’s degree in writing at Columbia University. Her father was also a public school teacher while her mother was a liaison — through a program she ran at Bronx Community College. As a hobby, her mother would work with textiles from repurposing old jeans into miniskirts and even dressing up the house with newly sewn curtains.
Her and her siblings now own the Harlem home they grew up in.
Today at age 29, Tschabalala has shown her work internationally and has had nine solo exhibitions. She received her B.A. from Bard College in 2012 and her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 2015. She has since stayed in the area and lives and works in New Haven Connecticut, just a few minutes away from where she previously studied. Earlier this year, her work was displayed at MOMA PS1 as part of her residency with the Studio Museum of Harlem. Making record sales as a young artist, her work recently sold for about $450,000 earlier this year. With her many awards, exhibitions, and accomplishments in mind, she is put on the forefront of the new generation of contemporary artists under 30. But this wouldn’t be possible without the scope of her paintings and the strong concepts they are built off of.
Just like her mother, Tschabalala works with textiles and repurposes old fabrics. Inspired by artists like Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas, she explores the Black community and the Black female figure in particular within her paintings and sculptures by essentially freeing the figures from a restricted point of view. She views the figures as they are, not as “the perfect Black figure,” but as figures with stories, experiences, stresses, strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, and downfalls — human. Simultaneously, she creates nude figures to speak about the erotic and sexuality. “Just like drinking water and sleeping, sex is a basic human function. Through talking about sexuality, you can talk about many other things like vanity, desire, power,” she tells Teen Vogue.
Tschabalala is known for creating large scale images of nude Black women whose bodies and curves take up space on the canvas. Some of the figures’ legs are spread out wide revealing their colorful vaginas and buttocks. While also conveying the larger Black community, Tschabalala consistently makes the figure the main subject as they are usually standing against a simple solid colored background. Even when clothed, the figures’ body language is open. Playing with flatness, silhouettes, dimension, and multi-layered fabrics, Tschabalala abstractly explores figuration by making the bodies elongated, tall, and wide with a strong emphasis on their outline.
“I try to communicate truth with my work,” she says. “I make my figures based on real complex feelings, sometimes those things are wrapped up with negative thoughts, positive thoughts, fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities. Not everything is perpetual strength, power, happiness, and joy.”
Tschabalala’s color palette reflects the loud streets of Uptown New York: bright reds, yellows, oranges, blues mixed with hues of black and brown skin. Her work reflects the stories of the Harlem streets which is inherently the stories of people throughout the African Diaspora: African-American, Caribbean, African, and Afro-Latinx communities that all made their way to call Harlem … home.
The artist is telling a multi-dimensional story. While some may think at first glance that her work is simply celebrating the Black figure and community, she begs to differ: “Not everything calls for a celebration. If everything did then that would mean nothing would. So I try to leave space for unrequited feelings and disappointment. I think people don’t value truth as much as they should. Truth is the only thing people should ask for … truth is liberation."
Tschabalala flips the dialogue of taking up space to not only be one of positivity and celebration but also one of open conversation, transparency, and confrontation of issues. With a fearless bluntness, Tschabalala confronts her viewers with complex narratives.
Adding to the lineage of Harlem artists throughout art history, Tschabalala is also speaking to the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement by looking at works by major artists such as Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence.
“Someone who is a large part of my aesthetic and who has given me the confidence to work with textiles is Faith Ringgold,” Tschabalala says. “She is an artist that I am completely enamored with. I’m also thinking about how Jacob Lawrence goes about figuration and silhouette while conveying Black quotidian life.”
A glance at her art studio bookshelf reveals her interest in Black artists that made strides in modern and contemporary art such as Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter, Wangechi Mutu, Carrie Mae Weems, and Howardena Pindell. History is major element to Tschabalala’s craft and when asked about advice she would give to artists, she responded, "The most important thing to do is to develop your unique voice. It’s important to contribute something new but sometimes something new can really just be a reorganization of many things from the past. There is an OGB [Ol' Dirty Bastard] verse from a song that goes something like ‘See this ain't somethin' new. That's just gonna come out of nowhere, no! This is somethin' old! And dirty!’ And that’s how I feel about my work, it's just something old!,” she laughs and goes on to say, “Your work has to speak to history if you want it to have any relevance in the future.”
With this informed lens, Tschabalala reminds us that nothing is one dimensional. As humans, we all have a story — our ups and downs. The world will never go round without a sense a reality. She mends art and life, which is what draws so many far and wide to her work. “My figures are meant to create multi-dimensional understanding, complex multi-layered conversations about the figure, identity, defiance, and desire. I want people to look at the work and think ‘This feels earnest, truthful. I can identify with this.’ I don’t want to make figures that are peoples’ aspirational self. I don’t want to play the oppression Olympics with my work either. I don’t want to fetishize Black victimization. I don’t want to play any of those kinds of games. I just want to tell my story.” Knocking down the intimidating walls of the art world, Tschabalala tells it like it is and tells her pure truth, which is what makes her and her work so contemporary.
You can check out Tschabalala Self’s work in person at Pilar Corrias Gallery in London (opening October 2nd–November 9th, 2019) and later next year at her solo exhibition opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2020.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue