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Tschabalala Self Hardens the Medium

Issue 05 Interview

by Annie Armstrong

15 July 2020

Tschabalala Self in her studio, in front of Ol’ Bay, 2019. Photo by Christian DeFonte. Courtesy of the ICA/Boston.

Tschabalala Self’s recent show at the ICA/Boston, “Tschabalala Self: Out of Body,” was one of this year’s most hotly anticipated museum surveys. Spanning three galleries of the museum, the show looked at the thirty-year-old artist’s already illustrious career to date. Best known for her figurative, collaged paintings that explore the Black female body, “Out of Body” also incorporated Self’s foray into a new medium: sculpture. The museum show featured sculptures made from textiles (a favored material of Self’s), but in her studio, she’s been experimenting with bronze casting, marking a turn from soft sculpture to a medium much more enduring and definite.

I caught up with Self back in February, just a couple weeks after the ICA show had opened (and long before it prematurely closed due to the coronavirus pandemic). Self, who took my call from her studio in New Haven, Connecticut, spoke very quietly, but also very quickly and with palpable confidence. I was reminded of that old political adage: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Already, her work exists in prominent collections, she’s set and reset her auction record within the span of a year, and she’s been celebrated by critics and art lovers alike, thus proving that adage to be true. Well, at least within the arts.

This interview was originally published in Issue 05: No Boundaries and is being made available online on occasion of the ICA’s reopening on July 16, 2020.

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Annie Armstrong: So the ICA show has been up for several weeks now. How have you been feeling about it?

Tschabalala Self: I’ve been feeling great about it. I think that it’s been getting a great response from the public and I’m just really thankful to have my work in such a public institution like the ICA.

AA: I think of ICA/Boston as one of the prettier museums I’ve been to. Did preparing work for this show allow you to reflect on your career as an artist thus far?

TS: Oh, it’s so beautiful. I was happy I was able to be there for so long, just kind of take the install slowly, and do everything bit by bit. I feel like this show is really trying to give audiences insight into what my practice is doing at this moment. There are definitely some pieces that are there to kind of reference my process and reference my development thus far. But the work is totally steeped in what’s going on in my practice at this moment.

AA: When all was said and done and everything was finally installed at the show, was there anything that surprised you about seeing your own work in such a spatially large institution like the ICA?

TS: I was really excited to see the relationship between the freestanding sculptural work and the paintings in the larger space. That was a really exciting moment for me. Oh, and the wall painting. I love to see the succession of the work, and the confusion as to: What are the ultimate grounds? What is the ultimate substrate of this body of work as an installation, as opposed to looking at them as discrete art objects? So, for those reasons, I think that the middle room [at the ICA] was definitely transformative for me. I think people underestimate how transformative these kinds of large-scale exhibitions are for the artists themselves because you’re able to see your work in a different context, you’re able to see a different relationship from one piece to the next. So yeah, that was a great moment.

AA: How do you think that’s going to influence you going forward, seeing that middle room?

TS: It’s going to allow me to continue to think about the works not as just these one-off pieces that exist independently of one another and really imagine them all as being within and from the same community. And them being from and within the same community, their meetings do have this cohesion.

AA: Right. Though I did read that you are starting to experiment in bronze casting, is that right? Are any of them in the show?

TS: No, they’re not, but the sculptures that are in the show are the, I guess, the original works. Those are works that are heading off to the foundry at this time. So those that are in the show are the kinds of works that are now just being reproduced in multiples through bronze casting.

AA: How’s it been to try new mediums?

TS: I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with sculpture for the past couple of years. But now that I feel like the sculptures have reached a level of maturity and they have this ability to be freestanding, it felt like a good moment to cast them in a little bit more durable material, opposed to the more assemblage way in which they’ve been based thus far.

AA: Yeah, I kind of can’t think of a more opposite material from fabric than bronze.

TS: Yeah, that’s true actually!

Tschabalala Self, Spat, 2019. Acrylic, fabric, paper, dyed canvas, painted canvas, and raw linen on canvas; two parts, each 84 x 60 inches (213.4 x 152.4 cm). Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy of the artist. © Tschabalala Self

“Tschabalala Self: Out of Body,” Installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2020. Photo by Mel Taing. Courtesy of the artist. © Tschabalala Self

AA: Several of the canvases at the ICA show seem to be set up in dialogue with each other. Is that intentional? For instance, I really noticed it with the canvas with the La Morena cans set next to the piece that uses the Tide logo.

TS: Oh yeah, absolutely. The pieces that have a Tide logo are from my series “Bodega Run,” which really tried unpack the social and political significance of New York City bodegas. The piece that you’re referring to, which is called “Ol’ Bay,” is like a hint between that project and the project that I’m entering now. I’m using a lot of the building blocks from the “Bodega” works, but allowing them to become repurposed… in a domestic space, a pantry or a kitchen. So, there’s a logic there.

Formally there’s a lot of overlap with the drawings that really were the building blocks for the environments in the “Bodega” works. But now they’re becoming these quotidian objects within the home, which is logical because the bodega or the store are the places where you go to purchase objects for your home. That relationship is already there, but it’s just kind of heightened and dramatized with how the works are seen again in a different context.

AA: A lot of your work is about your experience growing up in Harlem. Do you remember what the first piece of art you ever made was?

TS: I do remember drawing at my babysitter’s house, Mrs. Robinson, who’s actually a really, really creative woman. She used to quilt all the time, and I’d also see my mother constantly quilting and working in textiles. I have a huge well of inspiration from her. She also taught me how to do stick figures. I would always draw at her house or draw at home as a kind of pastime. I’m the youngest of four siblings who were much older than me, so I did a lot of games or playing that I could do by myself. Drawing and painting were activities you could do alone. I kind of always did that as a child. I still like to draw my siblings and most of my family. I come from such a large family.

AA: Who else besides those in your family have been inspiring you lately?

TS: Always Faith Ringgold. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Noah Purifoy, as I’m trying to venture more into sculpture while trying to retain a lot of my aesthetic of collage and accumulation. I’ve also been thinking about the general idea of accumulation and how that can reference our conceptual concerns, or even concerns in regard to identity politics. I also look to Howardena Pindell. So yeah, those are some of the artists at the forefront of my mind at the moment. But different people circle in and out.

AA: So you’re approaching mid-career, and you’re starting to experiment more with medium. When you think of yourself as a full mid-career or even late-career artist, what medium do you see yourself working in more?

TS: I think it’s always going to be painting. I mean, I think I’m always going to work in painting, but I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I would think painting, I love painting. Even when I make sculptures, I never consider myself a sculptor. I think of myself as a painter because I think of painting as more of a philosophy than anything else. I feel like that philosophy can be applied to any medium.

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“Tschabalala Self: Out of Body” is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston through September 7, 2020. The ICA / Boston reopens to the public on July 16, 2020 with timed ticket entry available through advance online reservations.

Annie Armstrong is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. Her writing has been published in Artsy, The Art Newspaper, New York Magazine, VICE, and ARTnews.