Eva Presenhuber is delighted to present Cotton Mouth, an exhibition of new works by the American artist Tschabalala Self. Cotton Mouth is Self’s debut solo exhibition with Eva Presenhuber and features paintings, drawings, sculpture, and an audio piece.
In process and presentation, Tschabalala Self’s work explores the agency involved in myth creation and the psychological and emotional effects of projected fantasy. Self has sustained a practice wholly concerned with Black life and embodiment, with an intended audience from within that same community. In a flurry of stitches, Self assembles fully formed characters who, individually and situationally, hold power over their self-presentation and external perception. A power frequently denied to Black American people in their daily lives.
Each of the paintings in Cotton Mouth was painstakingly constructed by the artist. Formally, they could be read as multimedia collages, considering the marriage of paint and thread, though they lack that central ingredient in collage work—adhesive. The method of construction consistent throughout Self’s practice—stitching—carries an autobiographical and emotional significance. Self’s primary muse aside from herself—her mother—memorably used her hands to clothe and create for Self and her family. The labor in each stitch holds memory, affection, and protection.
The “heroes” in Ms. Self’s work are everyday people — composite characters informed by those the artist has encountered or observed on the streets of her native Harlem or elsewhere, like the kinetic young woman in her painting “Fast Girl,” or the beefy man with his back to us in a basketball jersey that reads “Sprewell.”
Yet underlying their accessibility and whimsy are weighty concepts — personal narrative and the African diaspora.
The figure that appears in both Pocket Rocket, 2020, and Nate The Snake, 2020, is referred to by Tschabalala as the "Milk Chocolate figure." This female figure is the only reoccuring character within Tschabalala's works and is a character that she will continue to evolve and explore within her oeuvre.
The "Milk Chocolate figure" first appeared in the painting Milk Chocolate, 2017, in Bodega Run, a project exhibition examining neighborhood convenience stores as a gathering place for community and a microcosm of current economic and political issues. Milk Chocolate was shown at the Rubell Museum in Miami, for the inaugural exhibition of the museum's new campus in 2019.
Inspired by Robert Colescott and Black Americana, Pocket Rocket has a satirical feel to it with the cartoon-like cloud plume and oversized hat. The southern elements of the work allude back to the idea of origin stories, as Self explained an ancestor on her paternal side claimed he had been a Black Texas Ranger shortly after being emancipated, though she is almost certain there were no Black Texas Rangers at that time. Tschabalala's family later settled nearby in Louisiana, a place members of her extended family still live today.
Nate The Snake is inspired by the idea of origin stories and religious myths. In this work, the "Milk Chocolate figure" takes on the role of Mami Wata, an African water spirit that symbolizes fertility, protection of women and children, and acts as a guardian of the environment. It is believed that Mami Wata's devotees are able to create their own reality through imagining themselves within Mami Wata's world. This is mirrored in Self's work as she reclaims history by creating her own characters.
"For me, it’s clarifying what I mean when I refer to Blackness,” she added. “Without the institution of slavery, this country could never have been built to be what it is today. The Black American is almost a mascot for modernism. The Black American represents the modern world, the new world.”
Tschabalala Self was born in 1990 in Harlem, NY, US, and lives and works in New York, NY, US, and New Haven, CT, US. She graduated from Bard College in 2012 and received her M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 2015. Future and recent solo exhibitions include By My Self, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, US (2021); Cotton Mouth, Eva Presenhuber, New York, US (2020); Tschabalala Self: Out of Body, ICA Boston, Boston, US (2020); Thigh High, Pilar Corrias, London, UK (2019); Tschabalala Self, Art Omi, New York, US (2019); Hammer Projects: Tschabalala Self, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, US (2019); Tschabalala Self, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, US (2019); Bodega Run, Yuz Museum, Shanghai, CN (2018); Bodega Run, Pilar Corrias Gallery, London, UK (2017); Tschabalala Self, Tramway, Glasgow, UK (2017); Tschabalala Self, Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art, London, UK (2017).
Self has participated in numerous group exhibitions such as Beyond the Black Atlantic, Hannover Kunstverein, Hannover, DE (2020); Radical Figures, Whitechapel, London, UK (2020); Desire: A Revision from the 20th Century to the Digital Age, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, IE (2019); Unparalleled Journey through Contemporary Art of Past 50 years, Rubell Museum, Miami, US (2019); Present Tense: Recent Gifts of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Art Museum, Philadelphia, US (2019); Prospect, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, San Diego, US (2019);MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence, MoMA PS1, New York, US (2019); Paint also known as Blood, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, PL (2019); Show Me as I Want to Be Seen, Jewish Museum, San Francisco, US (2019); Dirty Protest: Selections from the Hammer Contemporary Collection, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, US (2019); Triple, University Art Museum, Albany State University, Albany, US (2018); The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Raleigh, US (2018) Mademoiselle, Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée, Sète, FR (2018); Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon, New Museum, New York, US (2017).