1 May 2017

Manipulating Stereotypes

Tschabalala Self's work reflects her own attitudes towards gender, race and the fantasies surrounding the Black female body. Her figures, or 'avatars' as she calls them, boast exaggerated characteristics and a disorientation that provides an alternative to the highly sexualised imagery churned out by a range of sources; from pop culture to the classic male perspective. Starting out manipulating magazine cut-outs and reworking stills of the 'video hoes' from music videos like 2Pac’s “I Get Around”, the artist recently earned herself a place on the famed Forbes 30 under 30 list and looks to be on the verge of taking the art world by storm. We talked about everything from the gentrification of Harlem and her current project at the Red Bull house of Art, to the current fascist state of America and whether it's the responsbility of artists to change racist and sexist stereotypes.

with growing up in Harlem, I wanted to ask you about the neighbourhood’s gentrification. do you think your work would be completely different if you grew up there now?
Yeah, I do, it would’ve been very different. When I was growing up in Harlem, it was a predominantly black neighbourhood and now not so much. Growing up in a black environment and being surrounded by black people really shaped my opinion about my own identity because I never really saw myself as a black body in a white society until I left the initial environment that I grew up in. I started going to school in different neighbourhoods that attracted more communities outside of my own and to be fair, it was really good for my self-esteem. I could work on my relationship with myself and my own identity in an all black community. If I was to grow up in present day Harlem with all of the current issues of gentrification and people being displaced and the tension surrounding the socio-economic changes, I think it would’ve had a different effect on me and how I understand myself.

a lot of your early work contained magazine cut-outs and secondary imagery, when and why did you transition into creating your own imagery?
When I was in graduate school, I started to make imagery for myself because I wasn’t able to sufficiently express my ideas or to reach my true intention through gathering images from pop culture. The images from pop culture weren’t sufficient and complex enough in their representation of the black female body or black female identity in general. I felt that I needed to create my own images to deconstruct and reconstruct because at a certain point, images were out there and they were starting to detract the seriousness and intention of the work. They were very two-dimensional representations of the body and of the subject. Those images were lacking and I stopped being inspired by them so I thought I’d just do it myself.

your work addresses a lot of the misconceptions of black female bodies. When it comes to issues like racism and sexism, what role, if any, do artists have in trying to change the stereotypes?
I don’t know if it’s anyone’s responsibility to change stereotypes but I do feel like artists should make it their mission to have a clear understanding of their own intentions and what they want other people to take away from their work. They don’t have to know what their work means, but I think they should know what they want their work to mean to other people. 


there’s obviously a lot happening that feels incredibly backwards politically at the moment, do you see that as a barrier in creating the work that you do or more as something to fuel the fire?
I definitely feel that America’s becoming a more restrictive, fascist state and I feel like one of the only vehicles we have in this oppression is art so it’s more important than ever that there is transformative art being made because people are being supressed and eliminated.

can you talk us through the work that you have on show at the red bull house of art at the moment?
This is my first time doing an installation like this; the idea was to create an environment in which the viewer and the subject could be put on equal ground and that the viewer who is participating with the work will be implicated in the work. My hope was to negate and ply apart the dynamic of the viewer and the piece of art and having this voyeuristic thing that kind of implies that they have the authority to judge the case. When you’re inside the installation, because of the light projections, your body and your silhouette become integrated into the work through your shadow. You have to contain your urgency within that space – the space that is defined by the subject – and the subject is a black woman so you have to negotiate your body in the space defined by a feminine black force. I’m hoping that when people leave the exhibition space, they can take something away from that experience and carry that with them in their everyday lives.