Girl Power: Tschabalala Self at Parasol Unit

Written by: Victoria Highfield

Girl power at its best: Erotic and empowering show depicting the human figure in all its glory. It’s the lead up to international women’s day and what better reason to celebrate all things girl power than to see the first UK solo show of Tschabalala Self; a fantastic female artist who is pushing figurative painting forward in a diverse way.

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Self is a 26 year old New Yorker whose subjects consist largely of young black females (like her) presented as distorted yet hypnotically beautiful shapes. Through synchronised painting, print, collage and sculpture she depicts the concept of the black female body within contemporary culture and questions themes of race, gender and sexuality in a vibrant and powerful way. 

Self’s works are bright and daring not only in their content but in their use of colour and movement too. Backdrops of bright blue and yellow hues stand to attention whereas slices of orange and indigo highlight generous vicinities of the female form. Her paintings are loud and confident and include collage. Pieces of collected fabric – sometimes African or African inspired cloth – are sewn directly onto the work, bringing us closer to the artist’s roots and personal identify. The cloth is sewn in a precarious manner with loose threads visibly hanging down which seems like a deliberate move by Self to hint at the wildness to her work. 

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Working with mixed media allows her to play with the concept of reality vs imagination as she explores the Black female body’s purpose as a social and political symbol.

What is most striking about the images she presents is the sense of ownership that the subject – or as she prefers, character – expresses. Each character owns the space it’s been given and draws the viewer in with rapid, sporadic movement. Figures’ limbs intertwine and multiply like Hindu gods, their facial features elongated and contorted. There are hints of Picasso, Picarbia and even a contemporary George Condo in Self’s fragmented and fractured bodies, whilst also showing the beauty and grace of Matisse’s dancing figures.

Silhouettes leap across the canvas, legs spread, buttocks large and prominent, mouths open. Each one oozes in sensuality and erotica and asserts their own self-defined identify and thereby fulfils the artist’s intention.

A  key feature in Self’s work is voyeurism, the act of watching and being watched, and this links seamlessly with the sexual nature of works such as My Black Ass, 2016 which sees an enhanced sense of liberation in the carefree approach the women express. They expose their naked bodies through dance indifferent to the watchful eyes of the viewer. The women never give off any sense of vulnerability or victimhood but instead use their sexuality as a sense of empowerment; Self is deciding how she wants these bodies to look, no one else. 

Anyone who says you can’t be a feminist and get your tits out (aka Emma Watson bashing fools) should really see this exhibition. Self exposes a number of topical issues women still have to face in the 20th century. An important exhibition on defining the body through art – not one to miss!

Tschabalala Self (Free entry), 17 January – 12 March 2017, Parasol Unit foundation for contemporary art, Wharf Road, Islington.

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