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In times of gender inequality and exploitment, narratives surrounding sexuality, race and cultural provenance have become more and more frequent, creating a stage where artists feel the need to enact their own personal experience. In this setting, Tschabalala Self stands as one of the highest examples of black female emancipation in today’s often sexist and racist contemporary world.

Related articles: 21 Black Female Painters - 24 artists reinventing what figurative painting can be - "Talking About Race"

Born in Harlem in 1990, Tschabalala Self is one of those individuals that emerge once in a generation. The result of a balanced combination between a vivid artistic persona and a strong multicultural context, in a game of constant influence and exchange, a stage where both the artist and his or her cultural setting are in close contact and create a dialogue within each other. 

In her works, Self tries to overtake the fantasies and attitudes surrounding the black female body, which is often misconceived and subject to exploitment by the contemporary society. Painting, printmaking and discarded pieces of fabric are used to enhance the artist’s conception of the female body, in a process that allows Self to explore her ideas regarding the body itself, applying total freedom of choice and creating a sense of disorientation; a birthplace for new possibilities. 

 

Tschabalala Self, Loner, 2016. Oil, acrylic and painted fabric on canvas.

 

“I am attempting to provide alternative, and perhaps fictional, explanations for the voyeuristic tendencies towards the gendered and racialized body; a body which is both exalted and abject”.

A crucial aspect in the making of Self’s artistic persona can be found in the relations that she had during her upbringing both with her mother and her sisters. On one side, the strong connection that Self developed towards her mother’s talent in tailoring, put her in close contact with those materials she nowadays combines on the canvas surface, while on the other side, as the artist states herself, the sense of admiration that she felt when watching her older sisters getting ready for a night out, later galvanized her feminist perspective. These influential elements found themselves combined with Self’s awareness of being part of a black minority at her school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. An understanding that gave birth to the artist’s need to study and create narratives about the black female body, to explain with courage and honesty what it truly means to be a daughter, a sister and, most importantly, a black woman in contemporary times. 

 

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015. Oil and painted fabric on canvas.

 

“I feel like my relationship to making, both formally and conceptually, are both inspired by my mother […]. 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”.

The result that Self is seeking and obtaining is the construction of exaggerated depictions of female bodies, which is reached through the combination of sewn, painted and printed materials, creating a breakthrough in the common imagery regarding body and form, and allowing the observer to travel within different artistic crafts and traditions. 

If we think of an artistic persona as the result of the combination of one’s cultural provenance and upbringing, it becomes crucial to go back in time and examine deeply the artist’s life experiences, in order to have a clear idea of where his or her powerful images find their roots. Images and paintings like the ones brought to us by Tschabalala Self stand in front of the viewer as a synthetic and enigmatic conceptualization of the artist’s past life experience, and therefore request effort and involvement to be truly understood. 

 

Tschabalala Self, Princess, 2017. Gouache, color pencil, xerox, paper, plastic, oil, acrylic and flashe paint on canvas.

 

Tschabalala Self, Chandelier 1, 2017. Gouache, color pencil, xerox, paper, plastic, oil, acrylic and flashe on canvas.

 

Cover image: Tschabalala Self, Evening, 2017 . Oil, acrylic and painted fabric on canvas.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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