Tschabalala Self portrays black men and women from her Harlem neighborhood as exaggerated characters in a singular style. Her paintings often feature figures that appear to split open or fold into one another. She combines painting, printmaking, and fabric in her paintings, collages, textile works, and assemblages. She explores ideas about the black female body in particular, showing women with large braids, breasts, fingernails, etc. on textile-based canvases where fabric serves as a background.
Self grew up in the section of Harlem, known as Hamilton Heights, and attended the Children’s Arts Carnival. She saw murals on storefronts and watched her mother sew clothing for herself and her four older siblings. Her mother “always worked on the ground” as would Self later on. She studied studio art at Bard College before attending Yale University School of Art where she graduated in 2015 with an M.F.A. in painting.
She paints exaggerated depictions of figures that are “both exalted and abject.” Her figures in paintings such as “Dime” and “Red Dog” have wide-open eyes, a prominent motif as if her characters are staring back at their viewers. She uses a combination of sewn, printed, and painted materials. Her textile works are sewn from fabric scraps, purchased in Europe and on 125th Street near where she grew up.
She starts a new work with quick sketches and drawings. She lays fabric pieces on the floor and crawls around them to try out arrangements before sewing them onto canvas. She then builds the piece out with her numerous fabric scraps. The figures in her collage-style assemblages have skin in shades of black, brown, bright pink, lavender, and other unexpected colors. Her rich portraits of people are shown in poses that run from intimate and sexy to skeptical and guarded.
Her 2019 “Ol’ Bay” painting of a gigantic woman stands nearly 8 feet tall. The figure is posed in a grocery store. Behind her there is a shelf of chipotle cans printed on paper. The woman stands next to a bright yellow textile piece, which consists of fruit and flower patterns. This textile was actually used by Self’s mother as a curtain. This added personal touch “. . . has such a big resonance with me, in terms of my memory.”
Self has also been working with sculpture carved in wood of larger than life-size bodies. She has begun making molds of them so that they can be cast in bronze and placed outside.
Self has won several grants and awards, including one from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. She had a solo show at Thierry Goldberg Gallery in New York in 2015. She participated in Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitsch’s “Desire” show in Miami in December 2016 and showed at Pilar Corridas Gallery in London in 2017. She was an Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2018-2019. Since the Museum is closed for renovation through 2021, MoMA PS1 will show her work of eight paintings with tromp l’oeil brick walls that join together to form one scene.
She exhibited paintings at New York’s New Museum and had her first solo museum presentation in the United States at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. In 2019, she had another solo show, “Bodega Run,” at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, where she transformed the exhibition space into a New York City bodega in sculpture, printmaking, painting, and collage. In 2020, she will have solo exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art and at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.