Race and bodies are married concepts that have endured complicated relationships at the hands of history. Often, they have been placed and used to stratify the value of particular groups of people. In trying to overcome this historical obstacle, artists like Tschbalala Self have reclaimed and put forward expressions of blackness that genuinely capture the identity in a way that has evaded history. In doing so, Self’s paintings and sculptures consciously display the politics surrounding African Americans’ bodies.
Hailed from the storied Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Tschabalala Self’s early life was shaped by her mother’s artistry as a seamstress and her observations of her older sisters. By the time she graduated from Bard College in 2012, Self had observed: “different ways in which black and white women were sexualized by society and the media” In turn, “she began to challenge the objectification of black women in pop culture.” After obtaining her MFA from Yale School of Art in 2015, Self began creating art that reflected the problems she saw in depicting black women’s bodies. To highlight this issue, “She started to exaggerate the physical characteristics of the black female body in her artworks” to challenge and analyze how African American women were scrutinized under an unfair, sexually driven standard. With this mantra as her artistic focus, Self gained prominence at the 2016 Art Basel Miami. Three of her pieces were selected in the Desire exhibition by former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. That same year, Self’s exhibition Bodega Run at the Los Angeles Hammer Museum was praised and highlighted some of Self’s primary themes of women’s bodies and the political vibrance that Bodegas (Small Stores in Spanish) themselves radiated.
When looking at Tschabalala’s Self art, there is often an eclectic sense of shape and form that fusion together as women’s bodies. The variety of textures in these pieces mix in a unique manner, which conveys Self’s multifaceted understanding of black women’s’ bodies, which she points out “have a variety of hair textures, tones, and forms.” Furthering this line of thought, looking at pieces like “Bayo” (2017) and “Out of Body” (2020), the way that the shape of black women is emphasized highlights the conscious focus that they have received from various points of views outside of themselves. The pieces use multiple colors and exaggerate features to criticize how black women are displayed in the media. The portrayal of these women in the paintings is meant to celebrate the differences between them while giving way to understand the inner beauty that lies for them. The pieces go beyond just understanding the immediate physical aspect but also “Within the American context, the black woman’s body is married to trauma and the horrors that relate to the black experience.”
Dealing with the contra current of history is never easy, but optimism can be rightly maintained when work is being done to combat it. For Self, there is hope that black women will be liberated from the compatibilization they have received from all history corners. Moreover, as she exclaims, “the black female body for me also is generous and full of abundance. If the black woman’s body were a physical place, I would see it as Eden. That’s how I would like to imagine it”. And having put such an image forward, there is a direction to proceed with.