Home Entertainment Tschabalala Self is an artist expanding what it means to paint

Tschabalala Self is an artist expanding what it means to paint

Tschabalala Self stands with a scale model of her work "Lady in Blue" at the announcement of the shortlist for the next Fourth Plinth commission at the National Gallery in London on February 19. (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — Both a source of inspiration and a place to ground herself, Harlem holds a special meaning for the artist Tschabalala Self. “It definitely sculpted my personal worldview, style and perspective,” said Self of the Manhattan neighborhood, her hometown, famed for fostering generations of Black creatives, artists and intellectuals. “It’s this world within the world of New York, the largest and most vibrant city in the world. I’ve always been very proud to be from Harlem.”

This pride is most recently manifested in her latest exhibition, “Around the Way,” currently on show at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland. The show’s title is a nod to Black American slang, referring “to someone who’s from our neighborhood,” she told CNN. From referencing the brownstone brick-patterned architecture to real-life friends, family and local residents, the works on display serve as Self’s homage — and tribute — to her Harlem.

Self has become known in particular, perhaps, for featuring fuller figured Black women in her artworks, and incorporating sewn fabric and printmaking techniques. The Black female body is “my visual language, my visual aesthetic,” she explained. “That’s my muse.”

Her work has been shown at institutions including MoMA PS1 in New York City, LA’s Hammer Museum, and London’s Parasol unit — and on numerous occasions in Harlem-based galleries.

As a multidisciplinary creative, she works across fields including sculpture, performance, fashion and more, and is also as editor-in-chief at arts and visual culture magazine Elephant. Yet she’s most at home describing herself as a painter, and credits her training in printmaking as heavily influencing her practice. “I personally think of painting as being more of a philosophy than a literal application of paint,” she said of her work, which is rooted in how different colors relate to each other. This relationship can then be replicated through other mixed media, including fabrics.

“It’s a way to think about new and innovative ways to approach painting… I describe it more as assemblage because the fabric is so dimensional,” she explained of the appliqué techniques in which she works with fabrics on stretched canvas.

“Similar to how other painters have a palette, I have hundreds of bits and scraps of fabrics… It’s basically an accumulation of all my different fragmented memories or impressions from individuals that I knew well, or that I just happened upon,” she continued. ““Through the formal aspects of my work, I’m able to address my central conceptual concern that one’s identity is really the sum of many parts. Some of these parts are inherent, but others are projected and collected.”

This sense of collecting and gathering is epitomized in a piece in the new show, titled “Anthurium.” The work blends sewn, painted and printed elements to create a scene of domesticity — a key focal point of Self’s work previously explored in her “Home Body” series, which depicted scenes of intimacy and interiority.

Self’s own relationship with the concept of home has evolved in recent years. Now based in upstate New York, the process of leaving her childhood home prompted her to investigate the significance of domestic spaces, both real and imagined. “I think that the home is an actual site, but it also occupies an emotional and psychological space in people’s minds,” she said. “It’s symbolic of something other than what it really is in reality, and those are the kind of environments I like to explore in my artwork.”

When considering Self’s body of work on display in “Around the Way,” and more broadly, it’s also clear that the physical body embodies a further exploration of “home” as a place of belonging, of community and of self-care. Her figures are as at home in their physicality as they are in the world.

Tschabalala Self is pictured at the exhibit.
(Photo: Paula Virta/Courtesy the artist/EMMA — Espoo Museum of Modern Art via CNN Newsource)

She describes her approach to rendering and depicting Black women in particular as “an instinct,” but she says that she was able to articulate this further through researching the significance of the Rubenesque figure. “It was interesting to me that the women had this physical aesthetic that was speaking to their abundance and plentitude. They did not have any need,” she said. In her own practice then, this sense of abundance shows up in the way Self’s characters boldly claim space within the picture frame, with their power rooted in their identity, femininity and physicality.

This conversation with the traditional western canon of painting is ongoing for Self, and influences other facets of her work. In March 2024, Self was awarded the prestigious public art commission for London’s Fourth Plinth — her sculpture, “Lady in Blue,” will sit atop one of the plinths in Trafalgar Square, a landmark and tourist destination in the city also renowned for its commitment to highlighting contemporary art, starting in 2026.

The piece will be a bronze statue of a Black woman striding in movement forward, wearing a bright blue dress. That color was inspired by lapis lazuli and ultramarine, a rare pigment used with significance in the western art canon. “A lot of classical paintings have used lapis lazuli to denote a sense of honor and prestige to a revered figure. I wanted to use this color… to bestow that same significance.”

“Especially being an American artist, I think it’s a great honor and I feel a lot of trust from the people of London,” Self said. In thinking about the concept for “Lady in Blue,” Self considered the increased attention on monuments, particularly in recent years. Instead of uplifting or exalting individuals, her preferred approach is to look to symbolic representations of shared identities and societies instead.

But the commission also represents much more than the sculpture’s identity or physicality alone, added the artist. “It’s about having a figure that can simultaneously speak to the future and the past, and I honestly feel like a Black female figure is the best figure to do that for a number of cultural and historical reasons. ‘Lady in Blue’ can be seen as an historical mother, but also as a representation of our collective future.”

Tschabalala Self: Around the Way is presented in collaboration with the Saastamoinen Foundation at EMMA–Espoo Museum of Modern Art from 8 May 2024 – 5 May 2025 as part of the In Collection exhibition series.

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