Interview: Tschabalala Self

Tschabalala Self on heritage, identity, and what it means and looks like to be a practicing artist today.

A Black woman is seated in her finery, upright posture, paying you no mind. Or her legs are splayed, an open secret. Or she is bent over, her gaze turned towards the floor, nonchalant and carefree. Many of the artist Tschabalala Self’s paintings are character studies of these kinds. She presents us with figures that are full of action; charismatic, imbued with distinct and colourful personalities, but they do not perform for our gaze or attention. We happen upon them. They are allowed to be.

Self’s work combines paint, textiles, and discarded materials she uses to fashion her own language that can speak to and from the positions of these characters. As a Black woman artist, her work is often read politically: how the figures in her paintings relate to wider conversations or struggles around race, gender, and sexuality. But representation is but one facet of the work. Running through her art is a complex interiority that belies the stereotypes that are projected onto the figures she paints or sculpts.

Since her graduation from Yale in 2015, Self has exhibited widely in art institutions across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In this abridged version of her long conversation with Fact, Self takes us through questions of heritage, identity, and what it means and looks like to be a practicing artist today.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

Gazelle Mba: What drives you to make work in difficult or tough periods of your life?

Tschabalala Self: I’m still able to make work on those days because it’s a practice. It’s similar to other practices you have in life, from eating well, exercise, or a particular way of moving. Because it’s a practice, it’s something that I have to do all the time for my own health. Making the work is cathartic and often very healing.

GM: In another interview you stated that you strive to maintain a separation between your inner self and private life and the work. Could you talk a bit about this need for separation?

TS: I like to have a separation because I want to hold a piece of myself back for myself. Making art and making it available for a wider public are two separate things. If you’re an artist, you can and will always make art regardless of how other people engage with it. Making art is actually quite a solitary experience. When you get into exhibiting your work that’s a whole other process. I think that it is really good to leave everything on the table in the making of the artwork. But because it can be so political, (there’s many different kinds of people with many different kinds of intentions involved in the art world), I don’t think it’s always so good to leave all of yourself on the table. In terms of my personal life and my public self and how they are presented in my work, everything is more fluid and more porous. The other reason I do that, though, is because I feel even as an artist, you should be somewhat objective. I think artists are ultimately vessels of information, channeling ideas from a particular moment. I believe in a little bit of distance in making art, so that you allow yourself to be used for that purpose of transmitting those ideas. I also think it’s helpful to make work that is not so tethered to your ego but to your ideas which come from real-world influences.

GM: It seems like in the separation you create space in your work to think about Blackness and gender as an idea untethered to your own ego or specific experiences.

TS: I would agree with the statement. This has always been my issue with some artwork that deals with identity politics, because in trying to critique the ways in which one is treated as a result of their idea of their identity there is a validation of the fact that you are distinct from other people. Again, I think objectivity is important because you can’t concede to the fact that these identities are real aspects of your entire being. They are things that are on you more and less so, inside of you, right? And in the instances where they are inside of you, you have to be able to define what that means for yourself, not just concede to whatever society is saying that means.

My work is about my identity but many hundreds, millions of other people share my Blackness, my wom- anhood. These are things that are not unique identities to me, so I can’t personally define that for millions of people. I can speak about what that identity has meant to me, and I want to speak about it from a place of my truth, not reacting to what society at large is saying that identity means. My work uses tropes and stereotypes, because those are things that I view as cultural tools or markers that I can tap into, visually or subliminally, when engaging the larger zeitgeist. I ultimately believe that whatever identity you have in society is real, as it affects your daily life, but I feel all corporeal experience is just one facet of you. There are other facets unrelated to your physical experience. I think that art has to really speak to both those aspects of people.

GM: If you could meet your younger artist self, what would you tell her?

TS: I would tell her that your art practice is going to be the most consistent thing for you in your entire life and that you should really nurture this gift as it will help you get through any and all circumstances. It’s like your genie—so treat it as such.

GM: That reminds me of this Giorgio Agamben essay where he talks about the Latin roots of the word ‘genius,’ which is where the word genie comes from—it referred to the god who becomes each man’s guardian at birth. Genius would bestow gifts on the individual, but those gifts were not intended to be hoarded, they were to be shared. This also relates to the notion of practice, which allows the gift to be made tangible or available to others. I think practice as an idea manifests in your work through the interplay between daily life and art making. Take your Bodega Run series for example, could you talk about that?

TS: I think that everyday life is fascinating, and also I’m a people watcher. I get so much information from seeing people do simple things, observing their expressions, certain ways of looking or walking or affects. Because my work is all figurative I spend quite a lot of time on that kind of stuff. Any interaction with another person can produce an idea that I want to preserve as a painting or artwork or project. The bodega is such a commonplace institution, going to the bodega is basically essentially like going to the corner store. Everyone has had an analogous experience in every city, even a small town, but the New York City bodega is quite a unique place for a number of political and socio-historical reasons. I was able to make not just one work about that experience, but an entire series about it.

GM: A lot of critics situate your work as emerging Black urban centres like Harlem and New York at large but I also see a lot of similarities between your paintings and the work of African American folk artists like Clementine Hunter and Dean Butler. Do you see your work as being in conversation with African American folklore or being about a Black pastoral or bucolic?

TS: I definitely do. I grew up in Harlem. All of my siblings, except my oldest sibling, were born in New York. My whole identity is very much rooted in being raised in Harlem, a very Black neighbourhood, a village inside the city. It’s really shaped my perspective. But my family is not from New York. My parents grew up in New Orleans, which is a much smaller city in Louisiana. My parents’ grandparents were from Natchez, Mississippi, a rural southern city. And my dad’s family was from rural Louisiana, places called Slaughter and called Homer, which are north of New Orleans. So that’s also a big part of my identity. I still like to speak about what it means to be Black American, because I think it’s not often accepted as being an identity in America or even within Black America. My family is Black American and that’s the only thing we know. I feel like the South is really my origin. The American South is a very different place culturally and physically than the north and the cities. The migration narrative is a big aspect of Black American identity, too. I think about the South as Louisiana and Mississippi. That’s where my family really started. But having not grown up there myself, my understanding of it is always a little bit of a personal fiction, I’ve always imagined it more than knowing what it really is. Sometimes that fantasy element comes into my work.

GM: What would you like your legacy to be?

TS: Someone that was sincere and generous. So many people do not tell the truth and that does a disservice to them and to others. Half truths are not true. People don’t want to speak truthfully about their experiences. It’s really important, especially in art making to not phone it in. I also think that relates to generosity, a generosity of spirit in terms of really giving your all to your practice.

WORDS: Gazelle Mba

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

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