Abstraction and figuration: African-American artist Tschabalala Self at Parasol unit, London

African-American artist Tschabalala Self’s canvases intersect abstraction and figuration.

Running until 12 March 2017, Tschabalala Self’s solo exhibition at Parasol unit in London belies a connection with modernist figurative abstraction, and reveals the artist’s skillful use of vivid colours, texture and imagination.

Tschabalala Self, 'Pieces of Me', 2015, oil and acrylic on paper, 111.8 x 152.4 cm (44 x 60 in). Courtesy of Friedman Collection. Photo: Thomas Nelford.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Pieces of Me’, 2015, oil and acrylic on paper, 111.8 x 152.4 cm (44 x 60 in). Courtesy of Friedman Collection. Photo: Thomas Nelford.

First impressions of Tschabalala Self’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom at London’s Parasol unit are of a connection to modernist figurative abstraction. Carma (2016) notably evokes the figure squatting in the bottom right of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso pins the nude behind overlapping planes of drapery. The figure cannot be separated from the composition and is just as entangled in the work’s relationship with primitivism, lodged as much in the history of objectification as of formal innovation.

Self’s figure is autonomous, cutout against an abstract area of chemical yellow. Like Picasso’s figure, she turns to engage the spectator with a direct gaze. This is where the similarity ends. The face of Picasso’s figure is guarded, a twisted sneer behind a mask. Carma has a wry smile, an even gaze beneath sassy false lashes. Picasso’s raw ocher flesh has become a festival of printed and indigo cottons. Self’s woman is assured, part cowgirl—part Lillian Randolph (an African-American singer and actress of the 1930s).

Tschabalala Self, 'Carma', 2016, fabric, linen, Flashe®, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm (72 x 48 in). Courtesy of Jackson Tang, Florence. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Carma’, 2016, fabric, linen, Flashe®, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm (72 x 48 in). Courtesy of Jackson Tang, Florence. Photo: Dan Bradica.

Tschabalala Self solo exhibition, 17 January - 12 March 2016, Parasol unit, London. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self solo exhibition, 17 January – 12 March 2016, Parasol Unit, London. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Self: the Artist

New York-based Tschabalala Self (b. 1990) has featured in exhibitions that align her work to the intersection of figuration and abstraction, such as, “A Shape That Stands Up” at the Hammer Museum (2016), and to the exploration of Black identity, such as “A Constellation” at the Studio Museum in Harlem (2016). It is hard to look at the current work and divorce it from the resonance of historical art, from Kerry James Marshall to Henri Matisse, but Self cuts these associations from evidence of context. Her figures often exist in solitude against a void of colour, their self-sufficiency takes two forms. The exhibition celebrates a joyous, and sometimes supernatural individuality.

Tschabalala Self, 'Floor Dance', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Floor Dance’, 2016. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

In Floor Dance (2016), for example, the subject performs the splits, gesticulating with six arms in a cartwheel, her pointed tongue expressing theatrical exhilaration. Others such as Contact (2014), bend over, and are absorbed in acts of self-caressing and self-pleasuring. Self has described her characters as avatars. The avatar is a discrete entity, usually the persona of an isolated bedroom nerd who shuns interpersonal contact but is emboldened by adopting the enhanced attributes of a fantasy role.

Tschabalala Self, 'Sapphire', 2015, oil, pigment and fabric on canvas, 213.3 x 152.4 cm (84 x 60 in). Courtesy of Wassim Rasamny. Photo: Thomas Nelford.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Sapphire’, 2015, oil, pigment and fabric on canvas, 213.3 x 152.4 cm (84 x 60 in). Courtesy of Wassim Rasamny. Photo: Thomas Nelford.

Tschabalala Self, 'Swayze', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Swayze’, 2016. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Art as sex and relationships

Self’s works are made in a relaxed manner. Luminous colouration and patterned fabrics make them playful. A delicate tracery of tight machine stitching, in several different colours, contrasts with heavier textures. Some is recycled pre-painted artists canvas, as lighter fabrics pucker and these flaws give emphasis as in a drawing. Self has commented:

Putting materials and paint together blurs the lines of fact and fiction in my work. The various materials are not paint, but function as it.

Tschabalala Self, 'Pieces of Me', 2015. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Pieces of Me’, 2015. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Beside the fabric collages are printed images such as Untitled 1, Head Over Heels (2014). These appear to be imitative of pornographic images of masturbation. They show a figure bent to give a clear view of their genitals. This contortion is exacerbated in the printmaking process that has involved squashing a cut and folded figure to make the impression. The embossed images and the cut out printing ‘plate’ are shown side by side. The physical pressure of the process is dramatic and suggests an ambiguous metaphor. Are these exposed bodies being crushed to conform to sexualised stereotypes or are they affirmative, rejoicing in the legacy of feminist Germaine Greer’s essay “Vaginal Revolution” of 1973? As Greer later put it,

If they’re to be liberated, women have to demand the right to be dirty. By declaring themselves sluts, they lay down the Cillit Bang and take up the instruments of pleasure.

Self believes that “voyeurism is a compulsion of sorts and develops from one’s desire to possess a reality or individual that is outside of their physical selves.”

Tschabalala Self, 'Contact', 2014. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Contact’, 2014. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, 'Get It', 2015. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Get It’, 2015. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Cartoon figures

Her figures join a tradition of portraiture exploring Black identity that has predominantly been enacted with lens-based media, such as in the work of Malick Sidibé, Ayana V. Jackson, Liz Johnson Artur and Kristin-Lee Moolman. Self states in an interview:

I want my characters to have problems that are outside of their gender or race. Problems that are universal: heartbreak, grief, loss, desire. And also joys, pleasures, excitement. I think it’s important to show that because a lot of times characters that are based on black women are two-dimensional.

Tschabalala Self, 'My Black Ass' (detail), 2016, GIF animation from 14 xeroxed drawings. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘My Black Ass’ (detail), 2016, GIF animation from 14 xeroxed drawings. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Self’s short .gif animation entitled My Black Ass (2016), made of just 14 frames, is brazenly informal. It is the most succinct statement of the problematic identity politics that underpins her works. The succession of syncopated drawings have no apparent sequence and give no impression of movement. Like the most basic flick book, the skewed edges of the pad occasionally intrude. It is an independent, handmade take on the painstaking technical labour of animation.

The sequence recaps the convoluted marginalisation of Black women in cartoons, distancing itself from token figures such as Disney’s Princess Tiana, as well as from more positive role models, such as Doc McStuffins or Foxxy Love from the adult cartoon Drawn Together. The latter is herself based on the pioneering figure of Valerie Brown from the 1970s TV animation Josie and the Pussycats. Self’s amateur approach works against manicured images, such as those of the entertainment industry – reminding the viewer that these are still providing the dominant vision of a Black role model, one that is normally unattainable. Self describes her individual figures as “flexible, not stretched like a conventional canvas”.

Tschabalala Self, 'Genie', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Genie’, 2016. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The use of craft

The obvious use of hand fabrication methods makes the physical surface details of texture, hue and pattern contribute to the image. Self’s characters do not always take themselves too seriously. They are dressed up but a bit untidy and self-conscious. They are not idealised. Unruly breasts, extravagant nipples, untidy threads and creases work against the latent piety of the 20th century tradition of cut collage and even of women artists, such as Sonia Delaunay, who supported the establishment of fabric as a legitimate fine art medium.

Tschabalala Self, 'Bodega Run', 2015, oil, pigment and Flashe® on canvas, 111.8 x 76.2 cm (44 x 30 in). Courtesy of Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen, Los Angeles. Photo: by Thomas Nelford.

Tschabalala Self, ‘Bodega Run’, 2015, oil, pigment and Flashe® on canvas, 111.8 x 76.2 cm (44 x 30 in). Courtesy of Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen, Los Angeles. Photo: by Thomas Nelford.

Self joins her materials with a sense of haste, conjuring elegance from crumpled scraps. This makes her work urgent. Whether her reference points reside in the representation of women’s bodies in the first half of the 20th century or in the race politics of Trump’s administration, Self reminds us that, in this era, few affirmative images of the Black female body have emerged. The stitching that dances across the surface of the works might infer that the success of a person is simply her ability to hold it together, to break beyond the stereotyped and sexualised image, and make her true value shine.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: African artists, American artists, Feminist art, women power, identity art, painting, gallery shows, events in London

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