The most intimate part of being a person—your body, the thing that should be most your own—takes on different and unfamiliar meanings in certain spaces. Sometimes, the significance of your body has nothing to do with you.
That's what I was thinking about while touring Tschabalala Self's first solo museum exhibition in the United States, now on view at the Frye Art Museum. As someone who inhabits a black body, someone who is a black woman, I am used to the dissonance between black female bodies in popular culture (from mammy-hood to hypersexualized constant availability) and actual black female bodies.
What is rarely depicted is the boringness, the embodied reality. My body and how I experience it is different from how my body is perceived in a club or a museum, or how it's represented in a bank or a coffee shop.
This difference is one of Self's subjects: the in-between, the state of rest, of leisure, of desire, of quiet repose of the black body. Her self-titled exhibition represents five years' worth of work, encompassing sculpture, prints, and giant fabric-based "paintings."
The paintings are primarily constructed of various pieces of fabric that she's collected over the years, coming together to make a crouched body, or a background, or a tuft of pubic hair. Self uses stitching to "draw" details onto the pieces, giving them shape and dimension. She also incorporates other materials like paint, dye, and even, hilariously, weave tracks of real human hair to give her figures personality.
Self doesn't always use black or brown fabric to connote her figures' skin color. She also relies on other characteristics, stereotypes, and the viewers' own preconceived notions to help communicate gender and race.
"Stereotypes come up a lot because stereotype is one of the only other frameworks in which people are allowed to talk about blackness," Self said in the museum the other day. "That's one of my experiments—how many or how few signifiers you need to give for the figure to be read as gendered and also racialized. I feel like it's very, very few."
Hair texture, leg shape, and ass size aren't things she's trying to contend with or distance herself from necessarily, but she is trying to change the perspective from which we view them. She wants to acknowledge that these are beauty traits within the black community. Just like all those ladies with flowing hair and long necks in Renaissance paintings, black women have big butts and it's beautiful.
When I look at my butt, and my siblings' butts, and I think about how they come from my mother's butt, which connects us with a line of my ancestors' butts going back generations, centuries, there's a certain kind of pride and connection there.
However, I wonder how people without this personal knowledge of the black body will interact with these naked, sexual, mundane, mid-coitus, active, inactive, big-booty'd figures. In this complicated moment, the act of simply being can be misconstrued, politicized, sexualized. Can we ever escape this constant classification, this essentializing of the black body?
But that's precisely what makes Self's work refreshing and brave. "People still fall in love, people still have desires, people still eat, have different cravings," the artist said. "To only frame someone in that [absolute] way is also against their humanity."