For Tschabalala Self, The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program is a homecoming. Self, her three older sisters, and brother were raised in Harlem by their two parents. Growing up, Self visited the Studio Museum frequently and even interned at the Museum in high school. Since the beginning of the residency, Harlem has been the main inspiration for Self’s new paintings. She has incorporated the visual and iconographic phenomena of the neighborhood she finds fascinating into her new body of work.
In the past, Self’s work has drawn from the experiences of extraordinary and self-assured women in her life. These women are often depicted in exaggerated forms. Their bodies defy our expectations of how a body should move or appear in space. In the painting, Milk Chocolate (2017), the subject is aware of someone looking at them but doesn’t seem concerned with the viewer’s gaze. Instead, the subject turns gleefully toward the viewer. Instances like this reflect the confident nature of many of Self’s subjects.
In her recent work, Self also deploys shadows as a formal and conceptual device. The shadows are painted directly onto the canvas and they serve to break up and complicate the compositions. The shadows also refer to the consciousness or psychology of each of her subjects. This consciousness continues to be explored in all of her work. Self’s painted collages explore the desires of her subjects, their existential issues, and their humor. What I find fascinating and exciting about Self’s work is that it imagines a future where black bodies can exist on their own terms, “not in relationship to whiteness” or linked to “black Americans’ political positionality.”
Traveling informs her process and ideas, Self says, “It does help me clarify some of the objectives of my work which are to highlight how diverse and multidimensional the black community is. Even how fascinating the black community is within itself and how vast the vacuum of blackness is. I can make so much work infinitely about black experiences and life, and the well will never run dry.”
MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018–19 opens June 9, 2019, at MoMA PS1. Expect to see the streets as the stage for Tschabalala’s extravagant figures.