Politicised Symbols

Politicised Symbols

Flesh tones and bold textures bring a sense of the body and the organic into the stripped space of white walls and floor-to-ceiling windows at London’s Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art. For the first time in the UK, the 26-year-old American artist Tschabalala Self presented works from the first five years of her career in a solo show curated Ziba Ardalan. Self’s colourful, dynamic, sexual and critically astute paintings, collages and video work leave no doubts in the visitor’s mind as to why this artist has heads turning at such an early point in a career trajectory.

The New York native’s subjects are young black women whom she identifies both as characters in themselves and as expressions of the Black female body within contemporary culture. She creates and redefines the form as though it has become liberated through the myriad gestures and movement they enact here – some are in knowing self-display, some seem in careless abandonment – and in doing so, turns the social and visual clichés associated with sexually confident women to her advantage. Self calls them avatars for her own personality; a bold manifesto that asserts her own presence as a creator and commentator in an Anglo-American art world still overwhelmingly older, white and male.

The forms are simultaneously pulsating and alive – an aesthetic and exciting blend of shapes that seem both refreshingly new whilst suggesting an array of references. They spring to mind elements of 1920s posters advertising Josephine Baker’s Paris shows; Gauguin’s and Matisse’s women; contemporary female hip-hop artists’ album covers; and the pure and unapologetic assertion of black identity, corporeality and spirituality as it was imagined by the Black Arts Movement and the artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Self wears these inspirations lightly, however, and weaves them (often literally) into the forms and textures of her pieces rather than make any one the central thought of her exhibition. Large thighs, buttocks, breasts and stomachs dance, contort, gesture, writhe and pose; they can be almost subdued, as in the cross-legged, sitting Genie (2016), or positively carnivalesque, like the woman in Floor Dance (2016), with multiple arms suggesting a dizzyingly fast choreography. The fluidity of movement endows each with a powerful body that challenges notions of the demure and inexpressive feminine, whilst their celebratory and confrontational dynamism answers a history of prejudice and fear projected upon the black body.

The bodies certainly function as political and social symbols, but texture is just as worthy of attention. A blend of printmaking, collage, and painting lend memorable tactility to pieces like Carma (2016), where a curvaceous, solitary female figure looks at us over her shoulder against a vibrant ochre background. Pieces of collected fabric, paper or sometimes slices of canvas from an earlier draft piece are sewn directly onto a work. These textiles are sometimes African or African-inspired cloth given to her by the practitioners mother – symbolically enough, the transfer of a skill, and its accompanying materials, that ensures many a woman their economic independence the world over. Evoking ideas of female solidarity and the shared stories behind quilt-making, as well as a particularly African American cultural heritage, Self’s materials easily link such roots with contemporary culture. In Mira Mira (2016), the figure’s high-waisted shorts combined with her high ponytail and sassy pose reminds of more than one R&B star.

Her video work cements the theme of voyeurism that emerges in the paintings. Self confronts it head-on in her gif animation My Black Ass (2016): a bold, aggressive, confident and political statement. In this work, the character comes to life in a defiant celebration of her body – she dances, gyrates, and displays her genitals and buttocks with a confidence that subverts the direction of power in the observer-observed relationship. One minute, the character seems indifferent to any watching eyes, dancing for herself; the next, she confronts the voyeur by purposefully reclaiming just how and in what way she may flaunt her physical sexuality, if she chooses to.

An exciting use of mixed media, multiple artistic influences, and a budding political and social perspective makes this American artist one to watch. Although the strength of the pieces vary from work to work, this is understandable, considering the exhibition begins with some paintings Self created whilst still a student. Older, draft-like work here could have been set aside under a tighter, more impacting curation, but they do contribute to a view of the artist’s growth. The 2016 pieces are the clearest and boldest: as good an indication as any that we can only expect ever stronger work from this young talent soon.

Sarah Jilani

Tschabalala Self ran from 17 January – 12 March at the Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, London, for more information: www.parasol-unit.org

1. Tschabalala Self, Bodega Run (2015). Courtesy of Parasol Unit.