Tschabalala Self: activist art


The Harlem-born Tshabalala Self explores Afro-American history through black beauty. The American artist presents the female body like nobody else can.

Exploring pop and Black American heritage, here’s a basic summary – too basic even – of Tschabalala Self’s work. Paint, textile, recycled materials, any medium is a canvas for her to celebrate the bodies of black women who are all too often victims of orientalist clichés. Tschabalala Self deconstructs the female body, puts it back together and conveys an inescapably feminist message.

New York. 1990. Tschabalala Self was born in Harlem. Her mother was a great seamstress and would turn old clothes into new outfits for her, her three sisters and brother. The artists Faith Ringgold and Jacob Lawrence were friends of the family. From an early age, she was acutely aware of being one of only a handful of black children at her school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her childhood and observations were enough to galvanise her feminist point of view.

“I feel like my relationship to making, both formally and conceptually, are both inspired by my mother. It is the space I occupy in the world, that is the body I came from. It is who I am and who my mother was. The more sincere a story you can articulate, the more people have access to it.”

Taking back control

Tschabalala Self began to appropriate pop culture at college. Whist studying Fine Art at Bard College, she was struck by the different ways in which black and white women were sexualised by society. She began to challenge the objectification of black women through paintings and collages in a series of portraits devoted to black figures such as Saartjie Baartman. A cultural legacy that she strives to protect at all costs.

Love to Saartjie
Oil, acrylic and dye on canvas
66″(H) x 26″(W)
Love to Saartjie
Oil, acrylic and dye on canvas

“I think that this is a time for black people and people of colour to reclaim our power. We have to recreate a whole new rhetoric around our identities.” En 2017, cette nouvelle rhétorique est nommée Bodega Run. The new rhetoric was called Bodega Run in 2017. Tschabalala Self turned her attention to everyday life for black people in a Harlem that’s fallen victim to gentrification. The exaggerated body features are used to elevate ordinary women visiting bodegas, local corner shops in Black and Latino neighbourhoods.

Bodega Run Diptych, 2017
Acrylic, watercolour, flashe, gouache, coloured pencil, pencil, hand-coloured photocopy, hand-coloured canvas on canvas

Who can say they’re an artist without being an activist? New York, Glasgow, London, Miami, Los Angeles… The art world will have to count on Tschabalala Self’s pop, vitality and activism.

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