Two winters ago, a water pipe exploded at Tschabalala Self’s studio on an upper floor of an industrial building in New Haven, Connecticut. “It was like a biblical event!” she says, laughing as she points out where it happened one crisp morning this past fall. “Everything kind of got trashed, but none of my work got destroyed. All of my fabric and materials got drenched. Luckily they’re washable, so I just washed everything.” The things she didn’t wash she tossed out. “The space has been so much better since then. It was a baptism.”
The flood offered an opportunity to create a better system. After cleaning up, Self filled laundry bins with the slices of fabric, upholstery, clothing, and canvas (raw, painted, stained) she uses to create her paintings, and built racks to store them. “I’ve been able to keep more of my own work now, which is important,” she says.
If Self didn’t keep those paintings for herself, there would be plenty of takers. Just 29 years old, Self has seen her work attract a huge collector following, and she has shows on deck at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (opening next week), Eva Presenhuber gallery in New York (in May), and the Baltimore Museum of Art (in August). When we spoke in October, she was just back from London, where an exhibition of her work had opened at Pilar Corrias gallery.
Self speaks softly but rapidly as she gives a tour of her tidy space. She is charming and relaxed, but her hands never stop moving—she rips and sticks masking tape, and digs through shapes cut from textiles of every color, purchased in Europe and on 125th Street in Harlem, near where she grew up.
“Most of the stuff that comes to my studio, I break it down for scrap,” Self explains. She uses those collage-style bits to assemble figures—their skin every shade of black and brown but also bright pink, lavender, and other unexpected colors—whose poses and gazes run from intimate, coy, sexy, and playful to…
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