Artist Tschabalala Self: ‘I tend to be a bit nosy’
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My personal style signifier is something casual and comfortable but chic – maybe even slightly business-oriented. So I love a pointy-toed shoe, either a heel or a boot, something feminine and vampy but sweet. Sharp edges and bright colours are always a plus. A collared shirt is my regular go-to for mild weather – turtlenecks as it gets colder. Max Mara’s lightweight turtlenecks are my favourite for autumn – in the winter, I enjoy pairing them with a Chinti & Parker cashmere sweater.
A place that means a lot to me is the backyard of my family home in Harlem. I have so many memories of being out there, just passing the time or escaping the still air inside. My parents grew up in New Orleans and didn’t really believe in air conditioning, so my room on the second floor would get very hot. When I was much younger, the yard was where I would collect snails, make mud-pies or climb up and down the fence. I remember barbecues with my siblings – I’m one of five – birthday parties, planting sessions with my mom and even my sister’s wedding, all out there in the backyard. Its loveliest feature is a 100-year-old rose bush that still blooms brightly every spring. I live upstate in Hudson now and, when I feel a bit homesick for NYC, I sit in my yard. It looks nothing like the yard back home but gives me a similar feeling.
The work of art that changed everything for me was a novel, Never Die Alone by Donald Goines. At my family’s home there is a large book collection by black authors and intellectuals from the ’60s and ’70s. I started reading them one summer in the early 2000s and was instantly hooked. Never Die Alone is a sad book about complex characters in less than ideal situations. The protagonist, King David, is truly a villain, but through the eloquence of the text you begin to sympathise with him. As a young creative, it taught me that characters do not need to be likeable to be compelling – and more importantly, it is sometimes necessary to create a villain in order to tell a moralistic story.
I don’t listen to many podcasts. I’m more of an NPR [National Public Radio] kind of person. I always have it on in the studio. I especially like the news programme Here & Now. Listening to NPR kind of feels like you’re having a dinner party and two friends are talking in the background; you’re getting the gist of what they’re saying, and you can drift in and out without chiming in.
My style icon is my mother, Glenda M Self. She worked as the director of Project HIRE at the Bronx Community College, a programme dedicated to providing high-paying jobs in the building trades to residents of the Bronx and Upper Manhattan through training and education. It was quite a macho environment, but my mom brought a lot of softness and care to her work. I remember her wearing these very cute dress suits – blazer on top, skirt on the bottom. They were conservative but with flair, sometimes brightly coloured – my mother loved bright colours. I definitely borrow a lot from her style, but I’m a bit more risky in my fashion choices.
The best gift I’ve given recently was a portrait to my gallerist and friend Pilar Corrias. She was very moved by it. It’s a work on paper, in acrylic, coloured pencil and graphite, and it has a cool green-blue tone in the background that favours cyan – my favourite colour. It’s really tricky drawing people you know: it’s not enough for the work to just look like them, it has to feel like them as well. I care more about a portrait feeling like its subject than looking exactly like them – I suppose this is my artistic licence. I’m excited to see the work installed in Pilar’s home when I’m in London this month for my solo show there. I’ll also be launching two limited editions and unveiling my first public art commission, in King’s Cross, both with Avant Arte. Home Body is at Pilar Corrias, 54 Eastcastle Street and 2 Savile Row, London, 6 October to 17 December. Avant Arte commission, Lewis Cubitt Square, Coal Drops Yard, London N1, 5 October until early 2023; the editions are released 13 October
The last music I downloaded was songs by Corbin Canvas. My favourites are “Function” and “Milk & Honey”. I’ve been listening to a lot of contemporary neo-soul lately. I found these artists when I was searching for a fresh but nostalgic sound for the studio.
The best advice I’ve ever received is to mind your business. I have a tendency to be a little bit of a nosy person, so I’ve heard this from quite a few people.
The last thing I bought and loved was a hot-pink leather bag from Brandon Blackwood, one of my favourite bag designers. It has an unusual shape, an inverted trapezoid, with a single button at the top. It’s also very practical – large without seeming bulky. But the best part is the pop of colour; it’s super-cheerful. Brandon Blackwood Haughton tote, £375
The best book I’ve read in the past year is a monograph of a painter, Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott. I read more artists’ books than fiction, and this was thrilling. Colescott is one of my favourite American artists and I wanted to know a bit more about his personal history and how he arrived at his worldview, which dictates the attitudes in his most iconic paintings. I found a lot of things about his background intriguing, especially the fact that his family was from New Orleans. His parents were very fair-skinned and could nearly pass for white, and this racial fluidity had a major impact on his psyche and perceptions of race. In his youth, he seemed to toy with his own self-identification but later, after a trip to Egypt, he returned to America wanting to claim a black identity. I think his actions were very transgressive at the time, and maybe even more so now.
In my fridge I always have smoked and regular salmon, yoghurt, grapes, strawberries and oat milk. Spinach and rocket are staples, and watercress if I can find it at the store. Plus ginger and garlic. I like to cook. I used to cook lamb chops often, but I’ve given up red meat, so now it’s more fish – shrimp and pasta is a go-to – and chicken. Barbecued, baked, stewed – any kind of chicken you can imagine. And I do a lot of creative things with rice.
I’ve recently rediscovered lipstick. I’m a pretty lazy person otherwise when it comes to make-up. I like the Red Rover: matte lipstick from Mented Cosmetics, which is a deep berry red – it matches my skintone perfectly – and recently my sister Setta bought me a new lip gloss, Lust by Pat McGrath Labs, in Blood 2 shade. The two pair really well together.
The thing I couldn’t live without, I’m embarrassed to say, is my WiFi. I need my entertainment, my Netflix; it helps calm me down.
I get some of my best ideas when I’m talking on the phone to my siblings – just hearing about their day, what they did that week, remembering funny stories from the past. We’re all so similar, yet we digest things slightly differently. So they can remind me of my own thoughts that I might have overlooked.
An object I would never part with is my “Tschabalala” nameplate chain necklace, which my mother bought for my 13th birthday. All the girls in my middle school had them and I was so desperate for one. I remember going to get it at the jewellery store on 145th and Amsterdam, across the street from McDonald’s. I don’t think the shop is even still there, or owned by the same folks, but the chain is a testament to that time in 2003. It’s gold, engraved, still super-shiny and perfect to this day.
The artist whose work I would collect if I could is David Hammons. I love how enigmatic his work is. He doesn’t have a defined relationship with one gallery, and he doesn’t tend to give interviews, so whenever I’ve had the opportunity to see his work in person it has been a huge honour and a memorable experience. His work has charisma and poetry to it. One of my favourite series is his Body Prints, which he made with his own figure. They broke my expectations around what a print could and should be. They veer into several realms – printmaking, drawing, painting and performance: a gesamtkunstwerk.
The beauty staple I’m never without is a little tool I use to retighten the locs in my hair, which are smaller than the traditional kind. I bought it from a black-owned business on Etsy called Codacraft that’s based in Oakland, California. I cannot travel anywhere, not even overnight, without it. I absolutely need it.
In another life, I would have been an aesthetician or a plastic surgeon. I think about this all the time, and honestly, I think I would still be completely dedicated to the figure and to the body, primarily the female figure. In this lifetime, there is no way I could be a plastic surgeon – I’m a complete hypochondriac and I cannot be around any body fluids whatsoever. Cosmetology, though, I could still do that.
The best gift I’ve received was a surprise birthday party that my partner, Mike, threw for me last year in Hudson. It was at a bar that we always go to in town called Lawrence Park, which is a stylish local place on Warren Street, the city’s main street. We go there often and at first I thought it looked a bit empty, but then I realised that all the people there were our friends. I was genuinely completely surprised. I haven’t had that many friends at a party since I was about four! It was the sweetest gift I’ve been given in years.
And the best souvenir I’ve brought home is a small, beautiful rock – it looks almost like alabaster – from one of the beaches in Antiparos, the Greek island I visited last summer. It was such a surreal trip, going to a small, secluded island, and I wanted to hold this rock because I felt like everything there was so ancient. On some of the smaller islands off the coast of Antiparos you can still see the ruins of old temples, and the entire area has a sense of spirituality that is equally soothing and unnerving. So perhaps this rock is a totem of sorts.
An indulgence I would never forgo is chocolate, even though I’m lactose intolerant. I love any kind of chocolate, from Hershey’s to high-end ones. The people at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, which I work with in Zurich, always send me Swiss chocolates for Christmas; my favourites are the round ones from Sprüngli.
I have a collection of artist prints. It’s a small collection, but a meaningful one. I have a few silkscreens by Faith Ringgold; one of my favourites is a reproduction of Tar Beach 2 (1990-92), produced in 1993. This work reminds me of Harlem. It shows a family on an apartment building rooftop, the cityscape and the George Washington Bridge in the background. I have an intaglio print by Kara Walker, titled Lil Patch of Woods (1997), which I have hung in my home office for motivation. A coloured silkscreen by Betye Saar called Now You Cookin’ with Gas (1999), which appears to reference a Harlem-street scene with men in zoot suits and women in ’40s garb – it lives in my foyer in Hudson. Most recently, I was gifted a large photographic print by Sarah Lucas, one of my favourite British artists, by [New York’s] New Museum as a thank you for my fundraising efforts towards the recent Faith Ringgold retrospective. It’s black and white, and shows Sarah biting casually into a peeled banana, the peel obscuring her face. It’s a great work to gaze at during breakfast.
My beauty guru is Hannah Bronfman on Instagram. She always has great beauty advice and recommendations – plus she is a Bard College alum. But, I have to say, I’m very much a YouTube girl – for any beauty questions I tend to just scavenge YouTube and watch 50 videos until I understand all the ins and outs of a particular style or treatment.
My favourite room in my house is the kitchen. For me, it’s a social space. I like how it’s open, and flows into the other rooms. It’s mostly all white, with a big sink, steel appliances, white-stone countertops – and I can see my yard through a large sliding door. I spend a lot of time in there, preparing food, making tea and coffee, or eating with my partner. I bought the long farmhouse table at a local antiques shop – the shopkeeper told me it was made by its previous owner from reclaimed wood. I also have some of my favourite artwork in the kitchen: paintings by Cudelice Brazelton IV and Chase Hall, along with works on paper by Marcus Leslie Singleton and Chioma Ebinama.
My favourite building is tough to choose… I love so many different buildings for different reasons. But the Studio Museum in Harlem – I have entered into that museum at many different points in my life and have left changed each time. It’s currently under renovation but I am desperate to return once it reopens on West 125th Street.