Two winters ago, a water pipe exploded at Tschabalala Self’s studio on an upper floor of an industrial building in New Haven, Connecticut. “It was like a biblical event!” she says, laughing as she points out where it happened one crisp morning this past fall. “Everything kind of got trashed, but none of my work got destroyed. All of my fabric and materials got drenched. Luckily they’re washable, so I just washed everything.” The things she didn’t wash she tossed out. “The space has been so much better since then. It was a baptism.”
The flood offered an opportunity to create a better system. After cleaning up, Self filled laundry bins with the slices of fabric, upholstery, clothing, and canvas (raw, painted, stained) she uses to create her paintings, and built racks to store them. “I’ve been able to keep more of my own work now, which is important,” she says.
If Self didn’t keep those paintings for herself, there would be plenty of takers. Just 29 years old, Self has seen her work attract a huge collector following, and she has shows on deck at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (opening next week), Eva Presenhuber gallery in New York (in May), and the Baltimore Museum of Art (in August). When we spoke in October, she was just back from London, where an exhibition of her work had opened at Pilar Corrias gallery.
Self speaks softly but rapidly as she gives a tour of her tidy space. She is charming and relaxed, but her hands never stop moving—she rips and sticks masking tape, and digs through shapes cut from textiles of every color, purchased in Europe and on 125th Street in Harlem, near where she grew up.
“Most of the stuff that comes to my studio, I break it down for scrap,” Self explains. She uses those collage-style bits to assemble figures—their skin every shade of black and brown but also bright pink, lavender, and other unexpected colors—whose poses and gazes run from intimate, coy, sexy, and playful to skeptical and guarded. Borrowing forms from art history, social media, and everyday life, Self experiments with how blackness, and otherness, is constructed—her construction of these figures becoming a powerful metaphor—and how it is projected in both popular culture and high art. She conjures rich portraits of people who may seem strangely familiar, people you would like to get to know, and people in the process of fantastical transformations. Questions of desire and power course through them.
Self’s process begins with quick sketches. After that, she will often lay fabric pieces on the floor and crawl—kneepads in place—to try out arrangements before sewing them to canvas on her Baby Lock sewing machine. She grew up watching her mother sew outfits for her and her four older siblings. “I had no interest in learning how to do it, but then I taught myself to do it after she passed,” Self says. “She always worked on the ground as well. If I had done it with her, I’d probably know how to do it properly, like make something.”
Self can’t make clothes, but she has figured out how to draw by stitching, to articulate the details of faces “or mimic the lines you have in your hand that run [on] the surface of your overall palm,” she says. Up close, her paintings appear at once very strong (the dense tangles of thread) and, consisting merely of fabric, uncomfortably vulnerable.
One piece that Self has kept for herself—a huge indelible one titled Ol’ Bay (2019)—leans against a wall. In it, a black woman, gloriously nude, stands nearly 8 feet tall in a shop. She glows. Behind her on the canvas is a shelf of La Morena chipotle cans printed on paper. “In Latin communities I’ve grown up next to, you can refer to someone who has just black hair or has dark skin as a morena,” Self says. “On the can, the woman is very fair-skinned with black hair, but I’m kind of proposing that the protagonist of the work is the true morena. They most likely would not have had a black-faced woman on the can, because there exists colorism in those nations similar to how it exists here.”
There is an especially personal touch to Ol’ Bay. The woman stands next to a yellow textile with a fruits-and-flowers pattern that Self’s mother used as a curtain. “It has such a big resonance with me, in terms of my memory,” she says, which is why she kept the work. But that is not always her reaction to using materials from her childhood home. Other times, “I feel like it gives it a little extra love,” she says. “It is like the piece is going out in the world with a blessing.”
In Hamilton Heights, where she grew up attending the storied Children’s Arts Carnival and seeing murals on storefronts and walls, she moved from “a wild middle school, a completely lawless environment,” to an uptight all-girls high school, to the laissez-faire Bard College Upstate; the art history professor Susan Aberth told her, “as a female artist, it will be more difficult for you. It’s better to get things going sooner rather than later.” After graduating, she decamped to New York City for a year, but the art world felt opaque and impenetrable. “I didn’t have any money so I figured I might as well go back to school because it was just impossible,” she says.
“I remember reading about artists I really loved at the time and I really admired, like Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, and I saw that they all went to Yale,” she says, laughing. “I saw that all three of them went to Yale, and I said, Hey, I’m black, they’re black. They make art, I make art. Maybe I should go there!” Self has gone on to make, in a short period, work that ranges from the joyously celebratory to melancholic, even anguished. They are complicated, polyvalent. She thinks her work is sometimes misunderstood.
“I think people expect me either to have this super noncritical admiration for black American pop culture tropes, which I don’t have, or to have this disdain for it, which I also don’t have,” she says. “I’m someone who just has to absorb all of it. I’m not personally invested in attaching value judgments.”
A few moments later, she amends that. “But also that might actually not be that sincere,” she says. “Obviously I have opinions about things. Sometimes you have a dissonance with certain ideas. I feel that with so many things in regard to what blackness means in society at large, what certain things mean in the community itself. A lot of things are positive and negative at the same time because of the situation in which black Americans have developed in this nation—it’s impossible to have something that’s entirely positive in a negative circumstance, and you have to make joy in horrible circumstances in order to survive this long in a nation where you’re not welcome.”
For her upcoming show with Presenhuber gallery, she is thinking about “interpreting pop culture as being a mythology,” she says. “If you look at any other mythology, it teaches you lessons about society—not this one myth is good, this one myth is bad. It’s all information about this culture or this society.”
Self is also delving deeper into sculpture. In her studio building, a cavernous room across the hall is devoted to the discipline; it’s filled with shipping crates. Many pieces are curving cutouts in wood—larger-than-life-size bodies from the waist down that are as vivacious, libidinal, and unflinching as her paintings. She has started making molds of them so they can be cast in bronze and live outdoors.
“The idea is that I’ll eventually have a bunch of them, like 50—there will be like a horde or a crowd,” she says, looking around and surveying her progress. “I think that’d be so cool. You’d really feel like you were walking into a crowd of people. Each one would be different.”
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of ARTnews.