Tschabalala Self, born in Harlem in 1990, explores sensitive ideas of the self, womanhood and the Black female body in contemporary cultures. She uses bodies resembling hers, as well as playful colours like soft pinks, stark blues and bright yellows, which serve as the backdrop for many of her works. Her universe dips into portals unseen that quiver upon memory and confidence, albeit only on a physical realm.
Last month, the sale of Out of Body (2015) set a new record for Self at Phillips in London, when it was sold to Jose Mugrabi, storied collector and owner of 800 Warhols. The painting was estimated to sell for between £40,000 ($50,950) and £60,000 ($76,430) but eventually sold for £300,000 ($382,000), five times the high estimate.
Her goal of “creating alternative narratives around the black body” is evident in the piece, where womanhood is celebrated and body parts are accentuated for effect. The softness of her figures, on fabrics and quilts collected over the years, makes the piece seem familiar. The camaraderie between the women, as well as the silhouettes in the background, adds a welcome sense of community. The women depicted are anything but anonymous; they have character, depth and style.
Self strands together filaments of the body that might be noticed first (positively or otherwise), or that carry a sense of shame with them, she carefully curates the viewer’s attention to places she deems worthy of being seen. In her works, many organs are discombobulated or exaggerated, yet still fit together harmoniously. These strands weave around each other into a completed whole, striking a lovely poetic chord between introspection and confidence.
Ali Smith writes that we treat books “surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.” I would argue the same for Self’s work; asking questions about identity and its myriad manifestations as one grows.