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ICA’s ‘Tschabalala Self: Out of Body’ is a powerful, dynamic exhibition

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
ICA’s ‘Tschabalala Self: Out of Body’ is a powerful, dynamic exhibition
“Loner” by Tschabalala Self, 2016. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

The groundbreaking and absorbing exhibition of Tschabalala Self’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Out of Body,” is the artist’s Boston debut and her largest exhibition to date — and it’s a must-see before it closes on Sept. 7.

“Ol’Bay” by Tschabalala Self, 2019. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

“Ol’Bay” by Tschabalala Self, 2019. PHOTO: CELINA COLBY

Self, now based in New Haven, Connecticut, was raised in Harlem in the 1990s, and her large-scale paintings illustrate the characters and emotions of that root system. Working with hand painting, found textiles, drawing, printmaking, sewing and collage, Self weaves a complex and enigmatic visual narrative that demands and deserves the viewer’s full attention.

“You are the sum of your experiences, but you also absorb … all of the different ideas and experiences of others,” the artist notes in her statement. “My process mimics this phenomenon.”

“Ol’ Bay” is a prime example of this process. A woman, pieced together from photographic reproductions of other works by Self, stands with her back and backside to us. She turns back with a broad smile while her hand selects from an array of La Morena and Goya products. The stacked cans and black-and-white tile flooring reference Self’s series of bodega interior scenes.

The figure and her position allude to the fetishization of Black women and their curves. But the details go much deeper than that. A large piece of fabric on the right-hand side of the piece, featuring decorative dishes and flowers, was cut from the same bolt that Self’s mother used to make curtains for their Harlem home. The delicate stitching on the curtain fabric is the same stitching that holds the woman’s body together. In this way, it is Self’s artistic history and her personal memories that piece this artwork together. The materials as much as the subject matter are a sum of her experiences and emotions.

Each work in the exhibition requires this kind of time to fully engage with it. These are large-scale works with powerful, immediate punches and simultaneously intimate, detailed works that digest slowly over time. 

The ICA is open to the public with a limited capacity due to COVID-19. Visitors must purchase timed-entry tickets in advance of the visit and wear a mask while inside the museum. Hand sanitizer stations are placed around the space. These are small prices to pay for a viewing of this exhibition before its close. An image on a screen simply can’t capture the dynamism and detail of Self’s works.

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