Tschabalala Self: Out of Body at Boston’s ICA

Tschabalala Self (b. 1990) currently has a solo exhibition entitled Tschabalala Self: Out of Body at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). Out of Body continues this up-and-coming artist’s exploration and empowerment of the black female by placing her as a central figure in many works. Much of Self’s work is a meditation on the female form, and she particularly focuses on society’s policing and appropriation of the black body. Self states, “My work explores the emotional, physical and psychological impact of the Black female body as icon, and is primarily devoted to examining the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality.”[1] Out of Body takes the black female, which in the canon of art history is often objectified as either sexual or servile, and gives her new depth through an autonomous role.  

Origin (2018), is an example of Self’s reframing. This mixed media portrait is of a nude woman with her legs spread. The woman’s head is turned slightly away, and her gaze is off to the side. The title, as well as her visible genitalia, makes reference to Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866). At the same time, by including the woman’s entire body rather than just her thighs and vulva, Self makes the subject much more complicit in her own exposure. While L’Origine du Monde may feel voyeuristic, the figure in Self’s Origin seems to be enjoying her own power. The woman’s arms and legs are spread confidently, her head is held high and the choice of bold fabrics create a piece that celebrates womanhood rather than exploits it. 

Figure 1 – Tschabalala Self, Origin, 2018. Oil, Flashe, acrylic and fabric on canvas. 84 x 72 inches. Photo by Charles Mayer. Courtesy Tschabalala Self Studio.

The ability to return women’s sexuality to themselves is part of the appeal and power of Self’s work. The females in Out of Body are present on the canvas, but they are not there for the enjoyment of the viewer. To properly appreciate the difference, one may contrast Self’s work with that of another painter of women of color, such as Gauguin. Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women are those of an outsider’s, appropriating “brown bodies” for his pleasure and the enjoyment of others. 

Figure 2 – Paul Gaugin, Are You Jealous? 1892 Courtesy of http://www.Gauguin.org

In Gauguin’s Are You Jealous? he places his models in reference to himself and the viewer. The frontmost young woman slyly looks out towards the viewer, conscious of the gaze upon her. Even the title of the piece is keenly self-aware; inviting the viewer to wonder if they should be jealous of the painter himself, or if these two women are jealous of each other. In much of his work from the South Pacific Gauguin stands on the outside of society and paints the local women as exotic creatures; as objects to be captured on canvas. 

In comparison, Self works to promote a narrative of women in their own spaces.  One of the series on display at the ICA comes from a body of work entitled Bodega Run. If anything could be considered the opposite of exotic in the United States, it might be a trip to the corner store. Ol’Bay (Figure 3), is one piece from the Bodega Run series. A nude female shopper looks into the distance (rather than at the viewer) with large smile on her face. She is strong yet feminine, black and curvy, and yet unlike in Gaugin’s work, her nude trip to the bodega (arguably a “natural environment” for a New Yorker) does not make her the object of exploitation.

Figure 3 – Tschabalala Self, Ol’ Bay, 2019, painted canvas, fabric, digital rendering on canvas, hand colored photocopy, photocopy, paper, Flashe, gouache and acrylic on canvas, 96 × 84″.

Thus, rather than existing for the mere pleasure of the viewer, the women in Self’s exhibition are self-possessed. Perhaps they are aware of the gaze of the viewer, and yet they are not inhibited by it. Their central roles are also a shift from the canon of art history where black and brown women were either exoticized or objectified.  Two pieces from the 19th century illustrate how much Self’s work represents a shift in focus for the black female in art. 

Figure 4 – Édouard Manet Olympia 1863 Oil on canvas 130.5 cm × 190 cm (51.4 in × 74.8 in) Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Manet’s Olympia (Figure 4), a fully dressed black servant brings a bouquet of flowers to a nude white woman. The black woman in this image exists as merely an object serving the needs of the focal point of the piece: the white woman. 

White women also dominate Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ Le Bain Turque (The Turkish Bath). Yet the circular oil painting also features two dark-skinned women as “accessories”. In this neoclassical piece the white (supposedly Turkish) women lounge in luxurious torpor. However, two black women are decidedly upright and in the periphery of this round canvas. One stares out, only her head and shoulders rendered, unlike the exquisitely painted bodies of the white women. The other sits erect playing a percussion instrument and is mostly dressed – in comparison to the nude women of the baths. These women have again been given supportive postures, as well as roles in these pieces, assisting as parts of the “scenery” rather than as the subject matter. 

Figure 5 – Jean August Dominique Ingres, Le Bain Turque (The Turkish Bath), 42.5 x 43.3 in, oil on canvas, 1862

In comparison to the pieces above where black women are servile or merely a part of the background, in Self’s work they occupy their own spaces. For instance, in the titular piece Out of Body, one woman constructs another in a Pygmalion-like fashion. In fact, the individuals depicted could be construed to be brown-skinned based on the fabrics chosen for parts of their bodies.  

Figure 6 – Tschabalala Self, Out of Body, 2015. Oil and fabric collage on canvas. 72 x 60 inches. Photo by Charles Mayer. Acquavella Galleries.

Self’s has created a body of work where black women are no longer objectified for the pleasure of the viewer, nor used as mere props in paintings. Tschabalala Self: Out of Body is invitation to encounter ways in which this young black artist is achieving her aim of “[trying] to communicate with my characters a sense of complete freedom…They are free bodies, and they have total control over who has access.”[2] While Self is one of many artists exploring themes of racial empowerment and identity, her material and compositional choices make the ICA’s show compelling and demonstrate how this young artist is pushing two-dimensional artwork in a new direction.


[1] Tschabalala Self “About” retrieved 3/17/2020   http://tschabalalaself.com/about

[2] Rees, Lucy “Meet Fast-Rising Artist Tschabalala Self” Galerie Magazine https://www.galeriemagazine.com/meet-fast-rising-artist-tschabalala-self/ retrieved 4/19/2020

2 comments

  1. You are so interesting! I don’t believe I have read anything like this before.
    So good to find somebody with some unique thoughts
    on this subject. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up.
    This web site is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality!

Leave a Reply