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At the ICA, rescuing an art star from the auction frenzy

Tschabalala Self's "Dime" is on display at the ICA.Mel Taing/© 2020 Mel Taing Photography

“Out of Body” would be a modest survey of the very young artist Tschabalala Self if it weren’t for the work itself. But with its dozen-and-a-half pieces splayed across three rooms at the Institute of Contemporary Art, size is the only modest thing about it. “Out of Body” exults in sensuality of every kind, in the life-affirming pleasure of the tactile and of the flesh. It’s a raucous, immoderate riot of image and material, of color and form. It’s gleefully carnal, bodily bawdy. Its labor-by-hand is explicit in every stitch and snip. If this is Self’s idea of being “Out of Body,” I blush at the thought of her take on being within it.

Also immodest, though entirely out of her hands, is the reputation that unavoidably precedes her. Self, just 29, grew up in Harlem. Many of the figures and scenes here are her recollections and imaginings — incantations, even — of the people she saw on the streets of her childhood neighborhood. She graduated with her master’s from Yale’s School of Arts in 2015 (and still works in a New Haven studio). Yale’s program is renowned for a couple of things: its intellectual and formal rigor, and its reliability in turning out bankable art stars.


Like it or not — and by every indication, she does not — Self graduated into both worlds. A recent story on the website Artsy charted Self’s “meteoric rise” in the art-as-commodity pecking order (insightful, analytical, and sharp, Artsy itself is an unapologetic hybrid of art and commerce in the sales-obsessed contemporary art world). An example: “Out of Body,” the ICA show’s titular piece, which hangs in the exhibition’s entryway. Notably soft and oblique — a pair of figures face each other, shadowed by wraithlike forms; one appears to be assembling the other, or taking her apart — “Out of Body” sold to a private collector for $473,000 at a London auction in June, more than six times the pre-sale estimate.

Tschabalala Self's "Out of Body" was created in 2015. A collector purchased it for $473,000 in June 2019.Tschabalala Self and Thierry Goldberg Gallery, New York (custom credit)/Courtesy of Tschabalala Self and Thierry Goldberg Gallery, New York

Self would see not a penny of it. She sold the piece years before for a fraction of that amount to a collector who held it like a speculative land buy, waiting for a market condition to maximize profit (there is no profit-sharing or royalty structure in the art world). In her interview with Artsy, Self gloomily described the auction circuit frenzy as “a tasteless spectacle.” Seeing her work, most of it featuring Black bodies emanating liberation and self-possession, “sold and traded in a similar context” to the slave auctions her ancestors endured, she said, filled her with disgust. A few months after the “Out of Body” sale, another of her works, “Sapphire,” sold for $487,000.


To be clear: I typically give wide berth to the manipulations of the market when looking at — and certainly when writing about — art. But the market is grimly reductive, burying the labor (and soul, and guts, and fire) artists pour into their work under gawkerish price tags. It’s also grossly impersonal for the same reasons — unconscionable for an artist like Self, whose work is so diaristic she often incorporates her own clothing, literally putting parts of herself on display.

Tschabalala Self's "Bellyphat," from 2016.Tschabalala Self (custom credit)/Courtesy of Tschabalala Self and and Pilar Corrias Gallery, London

So why am I talking about it now? Well, in our currently woke moment, its price-for-everything ethos has the power to cheapen what feels like real progress, and Self is caught in the middle. “Female Artists With African Backgrounds Are Winners at Phillips Auction in London” read the headline of the New York Times story about the auction in which “Out of Body” was sold. Reading it tightened my stomach. The only “winners” were a handful of moneyed collectors making high-priced bets. To me, the story vulgarized the insoluble dilemma around race and gender equity in the art world, suggesting that, in art, value and money are the same thing.


They are not. “Out of Body” might be Self’s largest solo show to date, but amid the market frenzy, it feels like an intentional cooling of the engine. The show is deliberate and thoughtful, a showcase with clarity at heart. The ICA is creating space and time for Self’s work, and other institutions are joining in. Later this year, the Baltimore Art Museum will host Self, solo.

The artist is also doing her part to throw water on the flame. Most of the works at the ICA are here courtesy of her studio, meaning she still owns them herself. She might have a state lottery’s worth of works on the walls, but she’s holding them from the market, steering as many as possible away from the auction block. One piece here, the brooding, carnal “Pant,” is roped off at knee height. Look closely at the label and you’ll see why: It was acquired very recently by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, after the ICA show was planned.


As a teller of Black stories, Self belongs to a lineage of artists who spent decades on the sidelines of American art history. Jacob Lawrence was a towering presence among Black artists for decades. Only now is the case being made for his place in the broader canon (at the Peabody Essex Museum, by the way). Kerry James Marshall, a virtuosic painter of Black American life, labored through the ’80s and ’90s in near obscurity before being widely recognized as an American master less than a decade ago. Henry Taylor, whose bright, loose scenes of Black life are among Self’s greatest influences, is now a budding art star in his mid 60s.

Along with painters like Amy Sherald and Titus Kaphar, Self is their natural heir. But this is a very different time. Markets and museums are hungry for their work to fill long-standing gaps; the narratives they embrace are no longer tucked in the margins of the American conversation, but sit at its heart. It means heightened attention, and all the good and bad that come with it.

And the work itself? Self’s pieces are provocative. There are male members and vulvic anatomy plainly rendered and in fine and loving detail. Then again, all of her work is lovingly detailed — scraps of fabric sliced and contoured into body parts, eyes, lips, clothing, with delicate stitchwork inscribing visceral feeling into faces and hands.

Tschabalala Self's "Ol' Bay," created in 2019.Matthew Sep (custom credit)/Photo by Matthew Sep/ Courtesy of Tschabalala Self and MoMA PS1, New York

Self’s work is unabashed and unapologetic, but it’s also empowering and tender. “Ol’ Bay,” from her 2019 “Bodega” series, embraces a strereotype of Black women with glee. A woman, back turned, puts her monumental round buttocks on view as she reaches for a can of peas. A breast peeks from behind her arm as she glances back to the viewer, euphoric. Somehow the image is far from lurid; instead, it’s giddy with self-possessed freedom.


The show, broadly, has that feeling of unfettered elation. “Bellyphat,” a 6-foot-high panel with loose threads dangling from its paint-and-fabric patchwork, bleeds pure joy: A female figure, hip thrust forward, tosses her head over her shoulder to nuzzle the shadowy figure embracing her from behind. Its material presence — snips and swatches of printed fabric, fragments of painted canvas collaged together, loose and tactile — creates a little distance, but only a little, from the sensual scene. It’s both exuberant and frank, bursting with the pleasure of the moment, and the moments to come.

You can’t look at Self’s pieces and not be aware of them as composites — bits and pieces knitted together, the psychological labor of cobbling together memories and experiences from her own life, fussed and fretted over as she built them by hand. It makes her, above all, a storyteller, of her own life and of her generation more broadly.

Looking at her work, I can’t help but think of Marshall, the great Chicago artist whose lifelong pursuit has been to paint Black life with all the care and passion the European Old Masters lavished on their grand history paintings. Through his craft, Marshall committed himself to declaring the significance of lives ignored or maligned, pushed far from the center of American life.

Marshall, despite his virtuosity, labored in obscurity for years — a narrative painter in an era of conceptual work, a Black artist telling Black stories until the world — and the market — rediscovered him more a decade or so ago. Across eras and generations, I thought the comparison between Marshall and Self, in this moment, made some sense. Marshall had his own uncomfortable New York Times headline in 2018 when his work “Past Times” sold at Sotheby’s for $21.1 million. “As a Black Artist Soars at Auction, Rethinking ‘Blue Chip.’” Go ahead, cringe. These are the times we’re in. But Self, like Marshall, has the chance to transcend them — insisting, through dedication and mastery, that her stories endure.


Through July 5, Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100,

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.