SEATTLE — Scraps of bright turquoise, yellow, and salmon fabric encircle a swatch of denim imprinted with a building’s image; this delineates a figure’s thigh. It is part of “Bellyphat” (2016), a textile-and-paint collage by artist Tschabalala Self. Elsewhere in the work, black, pink, and rosewood fabric swatches define the figure’s face, while ebullient strips of white and yellow delimit her belly. When I step back from admiring the textured detail, I notice how thread from figure’s edges wisps and meanders across the canvas.
I saw “Bellyphat” recently at Self’s solo exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Born in Harlem in 1990, the artist explores the iconography, interiority, and subject status of black women in her work. Her portraits are often comprised of such materials as acrylic, discarded canvas scraps, fabric, or oil, layered on canvas. In “Bet” (2016), human hair crowns a figure seated in front of bright yellow background; this intimate adornment — putting human hair on canvas — makes a redemptive space for practices beyond racist collections of black body parts popular in the early 20th century; it is also in dialogue with contemporary aesthetic refusals such as Solange’s 2016 song “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
Self deploys “avatars” to articulate how her figures navigate circulating representations of black women, while retaining their own multivalent sense of self. I think of how Uri McMillan in his 2015 book Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance describes avatars as permitting “an adroit method of circumventing prescribed limitations on black women.” I found this circumventing most profound in “Love to Saartjie” (2015). Using patches of canvas painted gold, black, white, and burgundy, Self’s portrait grants a solemn, regal bearing to Saartjie Baartman, the woman often referred to as the Hottentot Venus, who was trafficked from southern Africa to Europe in the early 19th century.
I spoke with Tschabalala Self about her textile-based practice, the concept of the avatar, and how growing up and now enduring gentrification in Harlem all influence her work.
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Hyperallergic: How are you thinking about texture and thread? What does texture mobilize in, as you’ve written, the “iconographic significance of the Black female body in contemporary culture?”
Tschabalala Self: I think about texture because the primary inspirations for my works are Black female bodies, which have a variety of hair textures, tones, and forms. This variety has become an important formal aspect of my work. The thread in my paintings has two functions. It has a utilitarian purpose of binding all materials together, but then I also use it to draw and define dimensionality to define features in the body with the stitch line. So, not all the stitching is functional, some [stitches] are adornments.
H: You adorn figures in subtle, profound ways. A daisy anklet in “Bellyphat”; paisley fabric that delimits and adorns legs in “Sunday”; a golden, ram-like crown in “Love to Saartjie.” What meaning do you seek to make in those adornments?
TS: I imagine adornment as being an affectionate gesture on my part as the maker. When making my work I am pulling from my own material scrap. I search for unique objects in these scraps, jewels in the rough. Many of these scraps take the form of abstract shapes. Some forms might look like crowns or other kinds of adornments by coincidence. In the “Saartjie piece,” I wasn’t thinking about her headpiece necessarily as a crown but I can see how it could look like one.
H: Most figures are shown alone but in “Sunday” and “Spending Time,” pairings evoke togetherness. How were you thinking through the iconography of togetherness for Black women?
TS: Originally I had a lot of lone figures because I was thinking about the figure as not so much subject but as icon. More of late I think about all the figures being different characters maybe in this epic play or gods in a pantheon. I see them now as being individualistic subjects that have their own desires and intentions. So that’s when the idea of having couplings came. Seeing one character next to the other helped define the boundaries of their personality and the extent of their community.
I also wanted to have two subjects to emphasize the fact that the characters in the work have their own autonomy. I want to complicate the relationship between the paintings subject and the paintings audience, so it wasn’t just the subject performing for the viewer. The picture plane becomes a viewfinder into the lives of my subjects.
H: What does the concept of avatar — central to this exhibition — animate in your work? How do avatars engage what you just said about this move from iconography to the subject’s life that is in some ways not for the viewer?
TS: The avatar actually allows one to transcend subjectivity, to become an icon. The avatar allows the subject to toy with a fantastical idea about themselves. You can choose your identity through an avatar. This freedom is power. This freedom subverts subjectivity and allows an individual to escape the cultural attitudes they are subject to. Some aspects of my work relate to my beliefs, and some relate to my circumstance. I do not believe in the basis of my subjectivity but I am aware of it.
For individuals who have been made to feel marginalized, representation is particularly important. One is constantly searching for a reflection of themselves in the abyss of popular culture. Individuals, images, and aesthetics become landmarks for self-identification and self-esteem. One will hope to embody this image, from a moment or photo/IG post … that reminds them of the self they’d like to be. These aspirational representations relate to the avatar as well. I admire my painting’s subjects. I aspire to have their power, beauty, sensuality, and femininity. They are my avatars, my vehicles for self-realization and my escape.
H: You were born and currently live in Harlem. You did undergraduate work at Bard and graduate work at Yale. You have shown work across the US and in Europe. How does your geography influence your work?
TS: I think where I grew up affects my worldview. When I was younger, Harlem was predominately black. You have Black Americans, from all over America. You have Black people from the Caribbean. You have Africans. You have ADOS [American Descendents of Slavery]. So, it was a very diverse community. I’m happy I grew up there. It’s a small neighborhood in a large city. I saw all kinds of Black people, living all kinds of lifestyles.
Harlem now is more like the Lower East Side. So, you have a neighborhood that has been there, that’s always been there. And now it’s not so much that those people have been completely moved out but now there’s another gentrified neighborhood that’s been placed on top. You aren’t going to be able to get all the Black people out of Harlem — it’s not going to happen — but they’re building a new neighborhood on top of them. Right on top of them. So there’s a hierarchy, and if you’re Black and from Harlem you are almost seen like a relic. You are not a part of the neighborhood’s future.
I want to create works about Black people so that Black people won’t be forgotten, because it’s too easy to erase Black communities’ contributions. By allowing my work to participate in a conversation around paintings, and live within institution — I am reclaiming space for ignored and hidden narratives.
H: What drew you to fabric?
TS: My mother used a lot of fabric because my mother used to sew. So she was the first person I saw using fabric. My mom would sew curtains. She would turn old pants that were too tight into skirts, stuff like that. […] And then the woman who took care of me, Ms. Robinson — I used to call her Ma — she would knit all the time and make really, really huge blankets, hats, gloves. Those are the women I spent the most time with as a child. They both used textiles in their creative hobbies.
H: Racist actions and discourse around Saartjie Bartman made her body an object, especially after her death. I found your portrait “Love to Saartjie” so warm and regal — with gold and reddish colors — and a profound representation of her interior self. What was your approach?
TS: I do agree that people don’t speak about Saartjie Bartman as I feel they should. They don’t think of Bartman as a woman who chose to leave her home, a woman with agency. She made that decision and through no fault of her own she was trafficked. Her story is an early case of human trafficking where someone was told that they would have work in a foreign country and then forced into sex work.
It’s another one of those horrific, crazy … it’s another one of those stories that is so bizarre it could only happen to a Black person. The disgusting and perverse violence projected onto the Black body in Western society is an abomination. Sexualized violence perpetrated by the society at large in particular is a phenomenon that should be discussed more in depth in regard to the Black body.
I think that people should remember Saartjie Bartman’s story in this context. Bartman’s agency, her desires, and her hopes are erased through the simplification of her narrative. She had power, she was disempowered, she was lied to, and then she was held against her will. I recognize her as a real person and in making that painting I wanted to picture a young woman. Not an object, not a corpse. She was married before she went to Europe. She had experienced love. She had a life and identity apart from her abuse.
Tschabalala Self continues at the Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Avenue, Seattle, Washington) through April 28. The exhibition is curated by Amanda Donnan.