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The Black Female Experience, in GIFs

‘My Black Ass’ looks crass at first, but then artist Tschabalala Self explains the femme format.

The emerging painter, Tschabalala Self is developing a practice that centers the black female experience at the core of her canvas. Her current project, My Black Ass is a series of GIF portraits of abstractly drawn black female figures moving in a motion that suggests they are twerking. The construction of the GIF focuses on body parts that have been fantasized and fetishized historically and in popular culture.

“My current body of work is concerned with the iconographic significance of the black female body in contemporary culture,” writes Self in an artist statement. “My work explores the emotional, physical and psychological impact of the black female body as icon, and is primarily devoted to examining the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality.” She says, “Collective fantasies surround the black body, and have created a cultural niche in which exists our contemporary understanding of black femininity. My practice is dedicated to naming this phenomenon.”

The GIF series evokes the stories of black women like Saartjie Haartman, the black woman who toured as a freak show across Europe in museums and circuses in the 19th century as the Venus Hottentot because she was thought by white Europeans to have an abnormally large buttocks. The series also references popular culture. Vogue has proclaimed this moment “the era of the big booty.” The magazine received backlash because some thought that black women—from video vixens from the 90s to Beyoncé and Blac Chyna today—weren’t credited enough for embracing their bodies.

Self’s GIFs evoke questions about the value and agency of the black female body. Self’s celebration of the black femme form is primarily populated by black femme concern. It’s a world created by a black woman for other black women to move freely and act independently of the white gaze. However, given the hegemonic notion of beauty constructed around white ideals, and the frequency of mainstream appropriation and erasure of black female cultural labor, My Fat Ass critique’s the voyage of the black female figure throughout history. The work is a reminder of why representation matters.

“I wanted to create a living portrait. My character can move and engage with her body within the linear narrative of the animated GIF in ways my paintings cannot.” She says, “The figure in My Black Ass has control over her movements and form, which is expressed through her manipulation and presentation of herself. She is the same throughout the GIF, but drawn differently in each frame,” says Self. “Blackness and femininity are constantly evolving and I want my practice to speak to these evolutions. I believe my work both embraces and mocks fantasy.” She explains, “Fantasies can be both oppressive and exciting, but regardless they are always fictional. Ultimately, I am trying to make space for new realities for black woman through my imaginations.”

This fall Tschabalala Self opens, Gut Feeling, at Thierry Goldberg Gallery.

Related:

Artist Uses Watercolors to Spotlight Black Femininity

Imagining the Inner Lives of Black Girls

Read a GIF Catalog of Black Women’s Body Language