Q&A with Resident Artist Tschabalala Self
All work is personal for Tschabalala Self.
At 26-years-old, the Harlem-born, New Haven-based painter has dedicated the entirety of her early career to exploring and examining the “iconographic significance of the black female body in contemporary culture.” It’s a subject matter that pulls from a larger historical narrative and yet feels like a staggeringly current body of work in today’s political climate.
There’s no doubt that a piece of Self’s personality is interwoven in her paintings, making the stakes seem higher and more personal for a young artist whose message is equally resonating with audiences and critics alike (Hyperallergic, New York Times, W Magazine, Forbes’ 30 Under 30).
“I’m interested in trying to unpack the significance of the black female body to better understand myself, my circumstances and the situations of other people who resemble me,” says Self. “It’s always personal no matter how far reaching it is. Everyone’s work is essentially a personal narrative despite what larger themes they’re talking about. I think I’m more sincere in acknowledging that element of working as an artist and having a relationship to an ideology.”
During her residency at the Red Bull House of Art, Self is venturing into sculpture for the first time. The idea is to create work that jumps off the wall and onto the floor with the audience — a cohesive installation of physical characters versus a collection of sculptures littered about in a gallery.
“I wanted to take the time to create a more immersive environment,” says Self. “I’ve wanted to do a project like this for a while and because of the size of the exhibit space and resources available, it makes the most sense to try it now.”
In addition, Self noted that by not “having the restrictions of any kind of sale expectations,” she’s able to work on parts of her practice that are less commercially viable.
In the Q&A below, we spoke with Self about the expectations that often accompany the work of black and female artists as well as the outsized role of individuality in black culture that populates her work.
In Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 book “Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” the author writes about the concept of white individuality vs. black individuality. In the United States, a white person is perceived as an individual who represents themselves. A black person is often viewed as representing an entire community or demographic — not just as a single, unique voice. Do you think the concept of black individuality is a theme that has informed your work over the years?
I’d totally agree with that statement. This is not just an issue within the white community looking at the black community, but also an issue inside the black community. There’s a lack of encouragement when it comes to individualism and how people are brought up to see themselves. You’re personally brought up to think your behavior is a reflection of an entire community. That’s a rhetoric that’s taught and definitely reinforced by the community-at-large.
You should be able to be any kind of person you want to be and still be black. There are all kinds of expression of black identity. They should be able to be accepted for their multiplicity. That’s why I’d like to have a wider array of personalities and types of characters represented in my sculptures. Some of them are good, some are bad, some are happy, some are sad — but all of them are unique and completely themselves. That’s something that I want people to take away from my work always.
As a black female artist, is there an added expectation or responsibility to represent the causes and opinions of a larger group?
I don’t feel like there is a responsibility to anyone else, but obviously, people expect more of me. I’m used to that. People always expect more from black people and from women. People have a lot of expectations of all kinds of people, but you have the ability to respond to whatever expectation you want. The audience may have their own ideas about blackness or how blackness should function especially in the contemporary art space, but there’s only so much I can consider because they are all so different and rarely do they align with my vision for a specific project. If I feel any kind of responsibility, it’s just to make sincere, good work.
I don’t want to speak for anyone, but I am interested in sharing my opinions and having them resonate with people who might find them significant or find ways of coping through the access to my opinions or philosophies, you know? My practice has been personally very cathartic and empowering. The intention isn’t to be an advocate for anyone, but more so to create new tools or new language around blackness and femininity.
What’s the biggest challenge you face jumping from paintings to an entirely new medium of sculpture?
It’s understanding the materials of that medium formally and also having the work carry the same charisma and impact from mediums I’m more familiar with. Whenever you start working in a new medium, there’s the possibility that your work in the new medium is going to need more time to reach a level of comfort and confidence that you have with the mediums you’re more comfortable with. That’s something I’m expecting to contend with. Maybe the work will be not as formally resolved, but I’m looking forward to the challenge and trying to create a new way of working that I can bring back to my studio when I leave. Sometimes it’s not good for the work to come to such a level of completion. If you create a challenge for yourself or a disruption, it can allow for more exciting things to happen with your practice.
I’m hoping the sculptures will be able to represent the body in a way that paintings cannot. Sculptures can exist in a three-dimensional space with the viewers. I’m hoping that when the viewers have the opportunity to interact with art that is occupying the same space as them, it will allow the work to take on a more visceral or significant quality in their mind as well. It allows them to be more animated and act as a living entity with agency in an exhibition space.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper