Few notions so frustrate the liberal imagination as that of the ‘body’. Despite its rhetoric dominating our literature and visual culture, the term prompts a sense of corporeal ensnarement, unease and dysmorphia. However, to confront the phrase ‘the black body’ from one’s own perspective is to know quite another sensation: certain identification swiftly set upon by misrecognition and subjection to racist deindividuation. In an obverse of the dysmorphic condition, the self is no longer trapped inside. Yet, freed from the body, it is reduced to a commodity, an enslaved entity. Despite such negative connotations, this loaded terminology of the body remains the preference for many art critics, and coverage of a black artist’s work must be seen to mention ‘the black body’, else risk accusations of inexpertness.
‘Out of Body’, the title of Tschabalala Self’s new solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, therefore rumbles with piqued, defiant portent. The swaggering announcement issues forth from the wall of the museum’s Fotene Demoulas Gallery as a pre-emptive strike levelled at stalling any discussion of black art in contrived critical formulations. Indeed, Self’s congress of artworks – 14 paintings and sculptures – stages a worthy intervention, reordering the emulsified language we lather upon black imagistic production, if not upon black life itself.
Self’s work is fastened to the matter of those black lives, their preponderance and variety within the vectors of a past – and a hurtling, imponderable future – that they produced, or that produced them. Her paintings have been shown in major Western cities, whose histories as laboratories for the production of race cannot but inflect and fortify the riposte to anti-black orthodoxy contained in her compositions. Here in Boston, curators Ruth Erickson and Ellen Tani have cannily selected the artist’s most disenthralling works, omitting her more iterative pieces, which are often studies on a sensibility or a documentary topic, such as the griot.
Self has referred to her painted figures as ‘individualistic subjects’, though ‘characters’ and ‘avatars’ are her more frequent terms. Coloured with imperial shade, the word ‘subjects’ also evokes the brutal manoeuvres – in speech as well as in act – of the contemporary nation state: its debasing invasions of privacy in the name of ‘homeland security’; the violent repression committed at its borders and beyond; its acquisitive designs on an already-plundered planet. Self’s subjects are like those described by French philosopher Louis Althusser in his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1970): men and women portrayed in the moment of their hailing – their fateful ‘interpellation’ – and formed, moulded in psyche and physique, by that encounter.
Often depicted in settings out of the public eye, Self’s figures seemingly possess the desire and requisite means to safeguard their privacy – a relatable reaction from those for whom the wider world is a hostile environment. The artist’s intimate renderings of domestic interiors feature subjects in vulnerable states – typically alone, sometimes naked. These private tableaux tempt our scrutiny, while also discouraging it: to view one of Self’s paintings is to play the interloper or voyeur, ashamed yet impelled by unseemly interest and access. The provocation of her work is the prospect of a rarely witnessed level of human exposure: a perspective onto the barren lives we lead in private, and the pains we take to forge a persona for public consumption.
The earliest piece on display at the ICA, the titular Out of Body (2015), presents not the unmasking we might have anticipated but a generative version of that trope. Inaugurating the show, the oil and fabric collage on canvas – depicting a woman fragmented into four parts, with three likewise figures around her – acclimatizes viewers to Self’s thematic concerns and peripatetic mind. Reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the artist has fashioned through poiesis a life-sized being – a receptacle for the competing prejudices and intellectual effluvia of its creator – that remains inert without her animating touch. Out of Body is a complex, ideational matrix against which Self’s practice is tested and then repeated, on the lower magnitude of a lesser dimension, by the artwork itself. Akin to the mathematical phenomena of fractals, in which the same characteristics are maintained at each reiteration, this might be termed fractal art.
The artist herself explicates the work in religious terms. In Artforum, she claimed that she wanted ‘to make room for a conversation about black spirituality that exceeds highly racialized rhetoric’ and that the work’s title ‘refers to a metaphysical experience’. This accords with her custom of elevating the picture plane to create an apposite setting for the divine. In particular, the artist’s more recent works call to mind the reverential aspect of devotional art. Three large-scale paintings create a pantheon. The first, Pant (2018), sets a black character against a dark-black backdrop; an imposing figure, she coolly broods astride her three legs. Origin (2018) – in which a woman squats in balletic pose, baring her florid sex, her gaze distant – is underpinned by a symmetry of design that is rare in Self’s corpus, with her predilection for distended physical features. Lastly, in Sock (2018), a man seems restless, agitated; the tilt of his head evokes contemplation, a vexed interiority. This inscrutable trinity of icons suffuses the gallery with the inviolate frisson of household deities, as if they have been charged with restoring something numinous to the quotidian. But how, in the first place, did it lose that quintessence?
A uniformed officer of the law patrols a span of city blocks; he’s black. His presence educes memories of the immense, aggrandizing power mobilized at the country’s southern border, of which he is a functional emissary. Exposure of the weapon at his hip secures his authority: he commands a fear he mistakes for respect. He stalks a population that knows its streets can mutate, with his arrival, into the violent border they feel has sent him. He thinks of the route he walks as his assigned beat; others call it their community.
This narrative – abstract, bleak, defamiliarized – offers a compelling answer. It also describes a work regrettably absent from ‘Out of Body’: NYPD (2019), from Self’s Harlem ‘Street Scenes’ series, which signals the capture of a populace by the carceral apparatus that surrounds and surveils it. In a society where reactionary regimes conspire toward punishing campaigns of austerity, the most marginalized demographics have countered the loss of an essential constituent of a fair society – the autonomy and free passage of people – with shrewd insurgent brio, appropriating neighbourhood mainstays for use as sanctuaries and ad hoc forums from which to defend their besieged culture.
The classroom, the bazaar and the bodega: these spaces have been co-opted as the disarticulated headquarters of revolt and communion. Self drew on the latter for her series ‘Bodega Run’ (2017–19), in which the figures are among the first she has located in recognizable outdoor destinations, zones of interaction and exchange between numerous occupants of a mutually constitutive reality. Hence the recurrent image motifs in the series – like the aisle of laundry detergent seen in both Thank You (2018) and Racer (2018) – which serve to establish a continuity between the paintings’ respective subjects. This association, Self suggests, is no accident; it is relational. Just like the protagonists of the ‘Bodega Run’ paintings, we all occupy adjacent, inflecting subjectivities. As the artist herself concludes: ‘You are the sum of your experiences, but you also absorb […] all of the different ideas and experiences of others. My process mimics this phenomenon.’
First published in Issue 210