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In the studio with… Tschabalala Self

13 October 2021

Tschabalala Self is known for her colourful, stylised depictions of female bodies, created in a range of materials and techniques, from painting and print-making to sewing and sculpture. These surreal images are, the American artist has said, a way to explore the ‘the fantasies and attitudes surrounding the Black female body’. At this year’s Performa Biennial in New York, Self will present her first live performance, a play about a couple entitled ‘Sounding Board’ (22–24 October). The stage, set in the bandstand at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem, will be designed and painted by the artist.

Where is your studio?
New Haven, Connecticut.

What do you like most about the space?
The light.

Two Women 3 (2021), Tschabalala Self.

Two Women 3 (2021), Tschabalala Self. Courtesy the artist, Pilar Corrias, London and Galerie Eva Presenhuber Zurich/New York

What frustrates you about it?
It’s a very old building and can be draughty in the winter.

What does it smell like?
Like an old factory building mixed with whatever was for lunch.

What’s the weirdest object in there?
Probably my old collagraphic plates: all different parts of bodies that I used to jigsaw together to create prints. If you were to see them on their own they would look quite odd. Also all my appliqué elements before they’re assembled – which look like stacks of limbs, facial features and heads.

Which artistic tool could you least do without?
My sewing machine. Or, actually, before the sewing machine: my scissors. I use those for everything, even the drawing.

What’s the most well-thumbed book in your studio?
It really does vary from project to project but my favourite book, that I always think about, is Sex and Racism in America by Calvin C. Hernton [first published in 1965]. That’s the book that carries through all my different projects.

Sisters (2021), Tschabalala Self.

Sisters (2021), Tschabalala Self. Courtesy the artist, Pilar Corrias, London and Galerie Eva Presenhuber Zurich/New York

Do you pin up images of other artists’ works?
I do sometimes pin up historical works – West African sculptures, pieces from antiquity, etc. If I have anything up it’s from a very long time ago, before Christ.

Do you cook in the studio?
I don’t cook in the studio. I actually hate eating anything in my studio because I feel like it’s not a place where I should eat. But if I do happen to eat inside my studio I usually go to this place called Ali Baba’s, which is New Haven, not too far from my studio.

What do you listen to while you’re working?
I used to listen to all my crazy podcasts and NPR mostly. But now I let my studio assistants play their music – they have great taste.

What do you usually wear while you’re working?
I’m usually wearing leggings and a sweatshirt, old sneakers – stuff that already has paint on it. And a hat so that no drops of water or flecks of paint from the ceiling in the studio fall on my head.

Do you ever sleep in your studio?
No, I haven’t done that in a really long time. I’m past that phase of my life forever! I try to leave there by 6pm, 7pm latest. My studio isn’t exactly comfy.

Who’s the most interesting visitor you’ve had to your studio?
I’m going to say that I’ve had too many to count.

‘Tschabalala Self: Sounding Board’ is at Jackie Robinson Park, New York, from 22–24 October.