Art

Immersed in the Playful, Communal World of a Bodega

Tschabalala Self reflects on the vibrant environment of bodegas, shining focus on who owns and frequents them.

Tschabalala Self: Sour Patch, installation view (photo by Zachary Balber, courtesy Thierry Goldberg Gallery)

MIAMI — Last fall, former Google employees Ashwath Rajan and Paul McDonald apologized for their unfortunately titled startup, Bodega, which sought to mimic the convenience of the eponymous corner stores. Their plan was to partner with various locations, like gyms or dormitories, and provide a Plexiglas box containing items you’d pick up at an actual bodega; customers could walk up to said box and purchase items with an app. Their proposed logo: a cat — a bodega cat.

There was a quick backlash. Bodegas are part of the tapestry of city life, usually family-owned — often by Hispanic and Yemeni families — and typically located in predominately Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Given its name, the startup felt like a literal whitewashing of bodegas as an institution. Bodegas sell more than just small essentials (as the “gentrification boxes” would neatly provide): they’ve got everything, from tampons to food products — sometimes in the middle of food deserts — and they act as informal neighborhood hubs, where locals can communicate and hang out in the midst of their daily routines.

Tschabalala Self, “Untitled” (2017), acrylic, watercolor, flash, crayon, colored pencil, oil pastel, pencil, hand-colored photocopy, hand-colored canvas on canvas (photo courtesy the artist and Thierry Goldberg gallery)

I remembered the Bodega debacle at Sour Patch, Tschabalala Self’s solo exhibition at Thierry Goldberg Gallery, the artist’s second iteration of her Bodega project (the first was Bodega Run at Pilar Corrias Gallery). But here I thought more about real bodegas: who owns them and who frequents them. The project is Self’s first foray into installation, and Sour Patch is a kind of cartoonish simulacrum of a store: colored linoleum tile floors, safety mirrors along the ceiling, shelving wallpaper festooned with images of giant, colorless Sour Patch Straws, Vicks Vitamin C drops, and Udupi chips (plantain chips).

Self’s paintings have always felt, microcosmically, like installations; her collaged figures are massive and lush in their fullness, and their exaggerated features are both carnal and worthy of otherworldly reverence. The bodies of black and brown women are simultaneously subject to idolatry and subjugation; Self acknowledges the fantastical nature of their depictions, while giving them a world of their own. The layering of multiple materials in her works — fabric, paint, printed materials — lend these women (and some men) an element of Lee Krasner-esque fragmentation, too, as if they were exceptionally beautiful jigsaw puzzles.

Here in Sour Patch, the figures are not just embracing themselves or their lovers or staring at us with a bright-eyed self-awareness; they’re shopping, too. In one untitled piece, a young girl with braids looks back at the viewer, the pockets of her rounded jeans stuffed with scratch-off tickets, M&Ms in hand; in another, a nude black woman, rosy-cheeked and red-nailed, looks back at us too, her smile huge while she clutches a candy bar. Other paintings showcase groceries, and are testament to the product diversity at most bodegas: Pampers diapers, Clorox bleach, Suavitel detergent; Häagen-Dazs ice cream; and Presidente beer.

Tschabalala Self: Sour Patch, installation view (photo courtesy the artist and Thierry Goldberg Gallery)

I especially liked the huge canvas of a brown, booted woman, browsing through candy. She’s portrayed in a colorful collage, with a silhouetted black figure behind her, presumably heading to another aisle; it reads “ICE CREAM” across the bottom. A milk crate sculpture in the gallery’s center, which also appeared in Bodega Run, is comically big. Against the black-and-white wallpaper, these vivid images and products seem like highlighted moments, quick glimpses into the mundane but singular experience of a run to the store.

Tschabalala Self: Sour Patch, installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic, photo courtesy the artist and Thierry Goldberg gallery)

Self is from Harlem, New York City; if you type in “bodega” on Yelp, and select Harlem as the location, it’ll yield approximately 387 results. Like other neighborhoods, Harlem has borne the brunt of gentrification. But bodegas have always subsisted in lower-income neighborhoods, even as they transform into wealthy, unaffordable spaces. Bodegas are like small bastions of earlier generations — palimpsests of a community. The patrons might shift with the neighborhood’s demographics, but bodegas are often steadfast, changing little. As such, they’re easy to fetishize, and easier still to brand. In Self’s hands, the bodega’s a playful backdrop for her characters — most of them women — to be bored or joyful, innocuously finishing tasks or happily consuming candy. She gives them, as always, plenty of space.

Tschabalala Self: Sour Patch continues at Thierry Goldberg Miami (151 NE 41st Street, Miami) through January 14.

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