Tschabalala Self: Cotton Mouth — at gallery Eva Presenhuber

Tschabalala Self
Cotton Mouth
Gallery Eva Presenhuber
39 Great Jones Street, New York, NY 10012
7 November – 23 January, 2021

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.

Personal sentiment unfolds into something larger with the consideration of material and formal content in the work. “Cotton Mouth” indicates a cultural and historical significance specifically referential to elements within the Black American lexicon. “Cotton has a supercharged history for Black Americans specifically,” says Self. “[It speaks to] Black Americans’ labor and sacrifice—and tangentially embodies the Black American experience of American chattel slavery.” As a material, cotton has a ubiquitous presence in everyday life, proving essential to almost every person on earth, but is infrequently acknowledged as the fruit of exclusively Black slave labor, accounting for over half of all American exports during the first half of the 19th century.

The body of work Self presents in Cotton Mouth is intended to speak to the unique phenomenon of Black American life through references to contemporary culture and Black America’s past. Self purports, blackness, like all identities, is based on a personal mythology—mythology being that which is half fact and half fiction. In the contemporary sphere, Black pop culture can be understood as the primary embodiment of “modern-day folklore” to use the artist’s own words. Within the title of the show, we also find reference to this practice of imparting knowledge, central to the African diasporic tradition. “I was thinking of the importance of oral history and diaspora as a way to carry lessons, information, or historical events to the next generation,” explains Self.

Most of the work in the show is situated in simulated spaces mimicking the home. “Domestic space is one of indoctrination and is the primary environment in which one receives information,” says Self. In the diptych Spat, a couple is engaged in a tenuous conversation, with the female figure on the left cross-legged and facing her partner. The male is on the “lashing end” of the argument, his vulnerable state made apparent by his visible rib cage. In Sprewell, Self pays tribute to the immediacy of honest emotion and intimate romance. The work references NBA star Latrell Sprewell in a #blacklove vignette—a Sprewell jersey worn by the male protagonist in the piece hearkens to the controversial choking of his coach in a pointed demand for agency and poignant expression of fury and resilience.