[music playing] Today we're meeting up with Tschabalala Self, who's originally from New York and now lives here in New Haven, Connecticut.
Her work combines drawn, painted, and printed elements with sewing and binding techniques to explore the iconographic significance of the black female body in contemporary culture.
She offers us a panoply of subjects who are aware and yet seemingly unmoved by the fact that we are looking at them.
Through these depictions, we begin to consider the attitudes and fantasies that have surrounded the black female body in history and in the present.
Her work masterfully manipulates, amplifies, and distorts these ideas while also rendering multi-dimensional subjects that have agency and power.
Tschabalala is going to talk with us today about her work and also give us an assignment that asks us to consider our own bodies as symbols.
I'm Tschabalala Self and this is your Art Assignment.
[music playing] The images all start from a drawing.
And from that drawing, I try to build a body or build the features of the subject I'm creating.
So I'll usually have a simple line drawing of how I want my characters to look.
And from there, I build the faces through sewing and grabbing various materials.
And all the materials are materials that I've collected or have just accumulated in my studio.
So fabric, old paintings, paper, debris from my family home, old clothing, just all different objects that come into my life that have the ability to go through the sewing machine can end up in one of the characters or one of the figures.
I think that they are really, sincerely built bit by bit.
And little objects, little parts that kind of make a whole.
Well, I was more basing things on my imagination, or I guess basing my reference point as how I imagine something might feel, rather than how it actually looks.
So I'm drawing something.
I guess I put priority on objects I think might be noticed for first, or objects that have a certain kind of psychological or physical weight to them.
So that kind of determines the scale of things.
How abstract that something is, or how realistically drawn it is, how recognizable it is in how it's rendered, or how strange it is, how personal or how generic it is as an object or an icon.
A lot of the portraits are made from making basically accumulating different shapes and building a person through shapes and that's kind of how I see people.
Big Red is one of my cutout sculptures.
So those are made of sheets of wood that I cut out with jigsaw.
Those are just an extension of my shapes.
The first group of those that I made, I made them to flank a group of paintings I created.
An idea was to give legs to the work, to this idea that we have this painting on the wall, but I wanted an aspect of the painting to be in the space with the viewer, to interact with the viewer in a way that corrupted this implied power dynamic of someone standing in a space looking at an object.
So I wanted the idea that maybe the object's in your space, and maybe this object is animated.
[music playing] If you were a shape, what shape would you be?
Make a line drawing of a shape you think represents yourself.
Try to avoid known shapes.
Fill this object with a color or pattern or some combination thereof.
So Sarah, I love this assignment, because in contemporary life, we are constantly being asked to come up with avatars of ourselves, some kind of image that will represent us.
But this is asking us to do it in a very different and interesting way.
Because as so much of what we see online is people either obviously drawing from a picture that they already have of themselves, or something that they like, or a symbol of an existing movement, but this asks you to start from scratch, and to think about how you might represent yourself without any of those fallbacks and to think about what is the shape, what is the icon that is truly you?
This is a hard one for me, though, because it's really difficult to think so abstractly about myself, you know?
I think this is one where you have to just sit down and start sketching, or sit down at your computer and start playing around.
You don't necessarily have to have an idea from the start.
I think you can sort of build it just like Tschabalala builds her figures.
But Sarah is going to help give you some ideas, hopefully, in her history of the silhouette.
[music playing] SARAH GREEN (VOICEOVER): When Pliny the Elder wrote his natural history around 79 CE, he shared a popular legend about the origin of painting.
So the story goes, the daughter of Butades of Corinth was so in love with a man about to head off into battle that she traced around his shadow as it was cast on the wall by a lamp.
Butades was a potter, and when he saw this, he filled in the profile with clay and fired it, making it into a relief.
The profile portrait persisted and became mega popular in the 18th century in book illustration and as a pre-photography alternative to the painted portrait for the non-wealthy.
The cheaply produced images came to be called silhouettes, after French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette, infamous for his austerity.
The silhouette is cheap in other ways, of course, leaving out a tremendous amount of information in its depiction of an individual.
Tschabalala is challenging you to create a shape that shrugs off the burden of realism, to make a form that can represent you more accurately and intriguingly than what your mere shadow dictates.
You then fill it with color, pattern, material, texture, more information, and more opportunity to extend and explore the shape of yourself.
For some people, I think it's going to embody how they feel that people see them.
And for other people, it can be an object that embodies how they wish they were seen.
So I think either experience could be cathartic.
Even claiming something about yourself, or dispelling something you feel like is projected onto you.
So I think this is an important exercise to just do like a mental exercise.
And also, you know yourself better than anyone else.
So if you were to make a shape of anyone, I think you'd probably have the most success at making a shape of yourself.
I'm just going to grab a piece of paper, use the floor, and just draw a shape I think represents myself.
And I might just add some solid color blocks to it.
But other people can add patterns, colors, bright colors, watercolors, any kind of medium they want.
But the most important thing is that it's a consistent shape, a closed shape.
And it cannot be-- it should not be a realistic depiction of yourself.
It should be something that's somewhat like an icon or a symbol.
Maybe they should think about what they associate most with themselves, if that's a part of their body, that's something outside themselves, an activity, a passion.
I first thought people should lean away from other cultural signs, but then I watched a documentary the other day about Prince, and his symbol is actually a perfect example.
And that's kind of a mixture of already existing cultural signs that he subverted to make one that spoke to him specifically.
So I think that you can use other-- maybe some kind of take on other symbols that already exist.