BALTIMORE — A three-ring circus. That’s what the first work in Tschabalala Self: By My Self at the Baltimore Museum of Art may recall for some. In this wall installation that includes “Two Women,” “Two Women 2,” and “Two Women 3,” the artist juggles gigantic silhouettes painted on the wall behind the three giant paintings, delightfully wrong cotton candy colors, ballooning butts, and painted whispers among friends you can hear from the parking lot. Yet all this big, sonorous activity was inspired by an artwork of slightness, silence, and calm.
Grand as their naked unity is, the inspiration of Henri Matisse’s duo, “Two Women” (1908), would be dwarfed by Self’s trio of bellowing Black and brown torchless ladies of liberty that own the floor like Motown singers vying for center stage. Careful, they could crush Matisse’s low-key lovers.
The Baltimore Museum of Art contains the largest collection of Matisse works in the world, including “Two Women,” his only sculpture of more than one figure. Matisse’s embracing women haven’t budged in over a century, whereas Self’s silhouettes bend to whisper, and stand straight to strut and pose authoritatively. Their sense of self-possession is part of her works’ sensuality.
In conversation with Cecilia Wichmann, curator of the BMA show, Self (or Tschaba, as she goes by) said that the original title of the French master’s statuette, “Two Negresses,” triggered her wall piece. This makes sense because — as one of today’s most important and popular young artists — her work celebrates Blackness in general and Black womanhood in particular. Especially sensitive to contemporary culture, she is aware of history as well.
Art history plays a role in the lead-up to the painted installation described above. When viewers approach it they have to walk around the museum’s intertwined “The Three Rings” (1966) by Henry Moore. The marble curves prefigure the round-as-earth buttocks of Self’s collaged “characters” (the artist’s word of choice for her spunky figures).
Several spirited moments animate the wall installation’s relative symmetry. One of these is the rectangle that floats across the bottom of the stretched canvas with the yellow background. This floor pattern is a shorthand way to suggest a domestic interior. It informs the visual narrative, just as knowing that Self, a 31-year-old Black woman, was born and raised in Harlem, New York, in a family of five sisters and one brother informs and personalizes her work.
“Two Women 3” is the most anomalous composition of the exhibition’s triptych. It’s the loosest, looniest, and, despite the hushed tones of its secret-sharer, it’s the loudest visually of the three canvases. The larger-than-life friends sport matching blue heels and flash their fashionably painted fingernails. Comfortable in their imperfections, the women flaunt their ample curves.
The panel that the friends occupy diverges furthest from the Matisse sculpture, and, of the three canvases, these figures fill their space most generously. This is intensified by the marvelously dissonant fireball of a tight, red-and-white striped dress and a big-ass sneeze of a green shadow. Ironically, what makes this area the indelible image that it is, is the in-plain-sight, but equally intangible, secret.
Before she even earned her MFA from Yale in 2015, Self’s career had taken off. Ever since, its mind-blowing trajectory has skyrocketed. At once batty and composed, flamboyant and commonplace, beautiful and unconventional, Self’s characters celebrate the physiques of women of color as they recognize the violence perpetrated by a white European system.
Self’s figures recall that of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman (1789–1815), stage-named the Hottentot Venus. She was a South African woman trafficked to Europe to appear as a sideshow attraction because of her extreme physical proportions, especially regarding her posterior and hips. Appallingly, her exploitation continued even after her short, tortured life ended, when Baartman’s genitals, skeleton, and brain were preserved and displayed in France. This public atrocity continued until the late 1970s.
Part of Self’s mission is to redress hateful racial myths and prejudice. Not part of the BMA exhibition, her poignant “Love to Saartjie” (2015) is a testament to the inspiration Black historical figures exert on important contemporary painters.
Other inspirations who Self acknowledges include Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, John Waters, Mickalene Thomas, Frances Bacon, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, the rapper Pusha T, her mom … the list could go on and on. Some artists deny their influences. Not Self. “Your work,” she said in a 2019 Teen Vogue article, “has to speak to history if you want it to have any relevance in the future.”
That she draws more with a sewing machine than a pen or pencil can be credited to Glenda Self: “… my mother used to sew. So she was the first person I saw using fabric,” Tschaba told Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud two years ago in a Hyperallergic interview. There’s no glue in the artist’s collaged images, which she calls paintings. “The thread in my paintings has two functions,” she added in the same conversation. “It has a utilitarian purpose of binding all materials together, but then I also use it to draw ….”
Unpredictability subverts the status quo. This is a good thing in art, and it guides this artist. For example, despite the frontality of “Loner” (2016), which portrays a woman viewed head on at the center of the canvas, we get a healthy dose of asymmetry. From one body part to the other, it’s an unpredictable, subversive somersault.
Somersault is an apt metaphor, as there’s a physicality, sometimes a muscularity (as in “Sock,” 2018) to Self’s work. Pitching for a Harlem Little League softball team throughout high school provided her key life lessons. “When you’re a pitcher,” she recounted to Vogue’s Dodie Kazanjian, “everyone’s looking at you, and if you fail, you just have to keep pitching. So I don’t have anxiety about something not going well.”
In her studio she is bold. From one project to the next, Self reinvents herself and reimagines how to portray the human body. The genitalia of “Loner” has little in common with that of the cheeky contortionist revealing herself in the pink two-piece (“Rainbow Bronze,”2021). And the penis of the red-and-white polka-dotted torso of the he-man in “Sock” — his sewn knuckles adding a refreshingly dainty twist to his pumping-iron body — is shaped and sized differently than its bigger, wrigglier counterpart in “Horse” (2018).
In “Horse,” the woman, whose face is seen frontally and body in profile, is proud of her Saartjie Baartman-like attributes. This strong, confident force of nature, with a purple face, looks comfortable with her missing parts; with sharing her secrets, exaggerations, distortions, and beauty; comfortable with her dramatically truncated, purple “rider,” and with sex; with the color that, according to Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, is love’s hue. “I think it pisses God off,” Walker wrote in that novel, “if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
With unmitigated strength and wit, Tschabalala Self’s community of quixotic heroines and, less often, her quixotic heroes — brave and stalwart, preposterous and real — embrace their particularities, their humanity. The artist makes her imagery more and more her own through her quirky artistic choices, endowing those she portrays with distinction, beauty, and power. Perhaps her distinctive, beautiful characters will empower us.
Tschabalala Self: By My Self continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through September 18.
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