Photography Josefina Santos

By Rachel Small

From a spinning vinyl record, a voice belonging to Tschabalala Self reveals the artist’s thought process in a spontaneous brainstorming session. Free associating, she unfurls various conceptual threads that have, so far, been crucial to her practice.

"Okay, idea for Eva Presenhuber show," she begins. "Thinking about how to place a Black mythology … how Black pop culture informs my practice … Black pop culture is the oral history of the contemporary Black mythology. Within Black pop culture, all ideas contemporary, fiction, and fact become collapsed into one cohesive, one ever-evolving, inconsistent but consistent, narrative around Blackness."

In "Cotton Mouth," the Harlem-born artist’s debut solo show at Eva Presenhuber, Self weaves together these ideas across the exhibition. The range of new work is appropriately expansive given the complexity and breadth of the subject matter she tackles: from large-scale canvases that, rendered with paint and collage elements, convey vibrant, emotionally charged scenes against largely domestic backdrops; to drawings that feature portraits of fictional Black people; to a trio of anatomically explicit sculptures—which double as variations of an armchair that Self has designed.

But it’s the audio piece, which plays on a turntable in the center of the gallery’s lower-level space, that, in particular, unveils the origins of Self’s multifaceted inquiry—and eventually drives home the message of the exhibition as well. In the recording, we hear Self come to this conclusion:

The origin story of Black America is distinct from the origin story of Africa ... If Black America began with slavery, then all mythologies in regard to this new America, this new Blackness, Black America, Black Americana. All mythologies in regard to this would in turn be new. They would in turn be contemporary. They in turn would be possessed and exist within pop culture … The titling of the show “Cotton Mouth” refers to this oral history, the oral history, fiction and fact, the oral history, the mythology of Black America, which is born out of slavery.

What follows this is a compilation of clips sourced from YouTube that represent what Self characterizes as “Black thought.” Though the sample size is small, topics vary widely from speaker to speaker. There's a health concern; there's fashion advice; there's a man living with a tiger in his New York City apartment.

We connected with Self to ask her more about the origins, nuances, and thematic dimensions of "Cotton Mouth."

RACHEL SMALL: I couldn’t help but notice that the opening of "Cotton Mouth" took place within days of the election. From what I could tell, the aftermath of the 2016 election had upended expectations about the future so drastically. The gamut of ideas and trends germinating in contemporary art and culture that seemed perfectly relevant in October became, by December, almost alienating to contemplate. Was the show’s closeness to this year’s election something you weighed while developing it?

TSCHABALALA SELF: It was, definitely. My primary concern was to present a show that was appropriate, regardless of the election’s outcome. I spent this past year thinking a lot about America, in regard to both its content and form. In “Cotton Mouth,” I decided to focus on the nuances of my own American identity, as someone of Black American descent. Many of the themes in this exhibition relate to my personal history and familial ties to this nation. More broadly, the show explores the unique phenomenon of the Black American experience, especially right now.

SMALL: Compared to your past work, what about this show would you say remained more or less consistent? And what do you consider the most pronounced differences—or any aspects that noticeably diverge—from your practice until now?

SELF: The paintings share a lot of formal qualities to my earlier work. And I made them in a similar fashion: incorporating collage techniques, assemblage, fabric, textiles and sewing, and using stitch as a means to hold those materials together.

But “Cotton Mouth” is conceptually different from other exhibitions I’ve done in that it deals more directly with race—a topic I have not discussed plainly before outside of the context of Black femininity. In the past, gender—particularly in terms of womanhood and femininity—has been a principal identity discussed in most of my projects. Whereas, in this show, racial identity becomes the focal point.

SMALL: Now that you have some distance from working on the show, has creating this body of work led you to any new epiphanies? That is, at any point in the process, from conception to realization. Or simply looking back at the experience overall.

SELF: I don't know if I had an epiphany, but I was prompted by the idea. The idea itself might have been the epiphany—the idea of me wanting to make a body of work that spoke to, "What is the point of talking about Black identity?" Everyone talks about “Black identity,” but why?

What I landed on, through the process of working on the show, was that it's important to talk about the specificity of a Black identity—especially a Black American identity—because Black American identity encompasses all of the aspirations and atrocities of this nation. Black Americans, for better or worse, are icons and symbols of America, its dreams and projects — and through that association, their narrative is bound to a greater global concept of modernity, which is, in some ways, a relic itself.

Through Black America’s relationship to America, through Black Americans labor and sacrifice, America was allowed to manifest. I have decided to stop speaking about Blackness as a monolithic — which is ultimately a ridiculous thing to do. It doesn’t make any sense, because it's very flattening.

SMALL: How did you go about assembling the audio piece?

SELF: The monologue at the beginning is my voice. Then the rest of it is spliced together from found audio clips. Specifically, different Black thought pundits on YouTube. Some of it wasn't even Black thought. I was saving different snippets that I thought were more or less interesting. I weaved these snippets together into the audio piece, which has its own narrative that mirrors the narrative of the larger exhibition.

SMALL: Looking back at your earliest works, it seems like narrative elements tended to be more subtle and open-ended—while more recent project s seem to incorporate narratives more explicitly. How have you come to think about the role of narrative in your work?

SELF: Narrative allows me to embed ideas and vignettes into stories, stories that allow for greater audience engagement with the topics in the show. Viewers can get wrapped up in these narratives, wrapped up in the drama of these stories, and fall deeper into the context and content of the show. It creates more of an immersive experience, both emotionally and psychologically, for the audience.

SMALL: Could you tell me about the trio of sculptures—the "Loveseat prototype" [all 2020] series—included in “Cotton Mouth”?

SELF: They’re meant to mimic functional art objects, furniture pieces. One of the themes in the show is domestic space and the home. I wanted to create an object that both invoked the idea of the home and the body, and possibly conflated the two.

SMALL: Has design come into your work before?

SELF: No, this would be the first time. I had a previous piece called Garter [2015], which inspired these sculptures. Because of the themes in this show as they relate to domestic space, I wanted these objects to be understood as having a place in the home, a relationship to the body and a relationship to the subjects in the paintings.

SMALL: Is there any reason you decided against using fabric?

SELF: Well, they’re prototypes. I wanted to finish these pieces out of plaster to perfect the silhouette, first. Eventually, a different iteration might have fabric.

SMALL: Outside of the relationship to the domestic space, is there anything specifically intriguing to you about creating design objects?

SELF: Yes. A design object that functions as a couch, chair, or a sofa—they're made for the body, and my work is so all about the body. So, I am very much intrigued by these kind of objects.

SMALL: In general, what do you hope that people will take away from seeing your work? And then, from seeing it in this environment—which is to say, the social, political, cultural atmosphere right now—specifically?

SELF: When people leave the show, I want them to feel motivated, feel positive about maybe participating in productive change that can contribute to what will happen this year in our nation and in the global community. I think it's been a very complicated past four years. And the past year, out of the four, has been one hell of a finale. I think that if people can walk away from my show feeling energized and feeling like they want to take on the next four years, the next several decades, with optimism, passion, compassion and action, that would be great.

That’s what my hope is generally, for what people take away from “Cotton Mouth.” That’s what my ultimate goal is, for all of my projects—so people feel like their perspective has been enhanced, you know?

Published: January 07, 2021

Cotton Mouth” was on view at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, 39 Great Jones Street, New York, through January 23, 2021.