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Hello

My name is Jameela Jamil. Welcome To I Weigh Community.

Two years ago we started an Instagram account to try to create a safe and radically inclusive space on social media. A lot of us want to help others and change the world for the better, but don’t know where to start.

Activism can seem daunting. Sometimes it’s just hard and lonely. At I Weigh Community, we don’t believe it has to be that way. We believe in brick-by-brick activism, and making a difference in large numbers. We’re going to have to come together and do this as one to really shift the narrative of our society.

I Weigh Community will introduce you to new voices, artists, activists and movements. These are the people we believe we need to listen to. We are still learning, and we’re inviting you to come and learn alongside us so we can all grow together. It’s never too late to want to help and understand each other better.

This movement is so important to me, and I look forward to getting to know you all.

Love,
Jam x

Tschabalala Self

Fabric shopping with Tschabalala Self, the painter who’s creating her own avatars of black womanhood

On a Thursday at Mood Fabrics in New York’s Garment District, Tschabalala Self takes in the inventory. “I’d normally use this on a figure,” she says of a bolt of smooth moleskin, “something that has this kind of feeling to it.” The figures she refers to are those in her artworks: Self is an acclaimed painter with pieces in the collections of the Hammer Museum, the Brooklyn Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem, though she’s not yet thirty. Her works are often fevered collages of painting, printmaking and sewn textiles. In them are black women doing everything from dancing and leaping to shopping at the bodega. And so we went to a fabric store to check out the wares.

The rising art world star is gently spoken but completely self-possessed, equally at ease discussing her art world influences and the finer points of reality TV. As we browse, Self spies a bolt of toile featuring a pastoral scene of an 18th century trio at a picnic and a tiny goatherd with one of his charges. “I think I might actually buy this one,” she says, unspooling a few inches. The textiles that Self collects come from all over—from her mother’s collection of fabric at her family home and from her travels. She purchases new cloth in each city she visits, collecting examples of regional styles.

Her mother sewed too but in her professional life she helped disenfranchised young people find work in trade unions. Self inherited this respect for skilled craftwork. “Maybe that’s why I’m not like a conceptual artist,” she told me. “I appreciate having my hand be evident in what I’m doing.” But in keeping with this apprenticeship tradition, Self’s mother “felt like if I was going to pursue [art] I had to go to school for it because she thought about it more like a trade.” Accordingly, she majored in art at Bard College and then earned her MFA at Yale.

Self most often creates images of black women, which she calls “avatars” as they hold some real or aspirational relationship to herself. She’s said that “the fantasies and attitudes surrounding the black female body are both accepted and rejected” within her work. She’s created voluptuous figures with round backsides, women bent over or spreading their legs to reveal their vulvas. It’s impossible to see these works without recalling the anthropological, dehumanizing white gaze that has so often imagined black women to be too lewd, too sexual.

I appreciate having my hand be evident in what I’m doing.

But that gaze is not Self’s—and she refuses to de-sex the women she creates in order to avoid the legacy of the Jezebel stereotype. Instead, Self’s work nods to the history of racism, stereotypes and abuse inflicted upon black bodies and yet goes its own way, allowing the avatars she creates to have the autonomy and range of experience they deserve. In this way, her work taps into broader streams in black feminist thought suggesting that the work of anti-racism isn’t just to prove wrong tropes about blackness, but to give black women the freedom to live our lives without being constrained by them.

It’s “inevitable for the work to be political because the figures in the work are politicized,” said Self. “So it would be disingenuous for me to say the work is not political because it’s obviously seen in that context. But I do try to clarify that I don’t personally see myself as an object of a political state. I cannot possibly minimize my whole existence like that. I don’t think that’s why I’m living, you know?”

Her works crackle with human life, an effect she pulls off with the help of her masterful command of visual depth and movement. Self manipulates shadows and textures, the black figures who populate her art feel round and lush despite being two dimensional. They’re posed in ways that, though sometimes improbable as in the unlikely ankle in her work “For the Gods”, feel vital and filled with empathy for the human form.

People see things that they recognize and have cultural associations with.

The fabric is crucial in both these effects. It adds texture, helping her figures have all the diversity present in skin and hair. And the contrast between the sewn, painted and printed elements brings motion to the work. Instead of canvases with flat, homogenous textures, the contrasting textures in Self’s work burst with visual interest, giving the appearance of activity to an immobile medium. The fabric also adds familiar reference points—a printed cloth becomes part of a T-shirt design on one figure, what appears to be a real pair of jeans clothes another. “I like having things that are of the world because I think that it allows the pieces to have this cultural significance just passively,” said Self. “People see things that they recognize and have cultural associations with.”

When she’s choosing what cloth to introduce into one of her paintings, texture is a major factor. Of course, viewers won’t run their hands over her art but she deals intimately with the textiles over the course of her work and so is understandably drawn to fabrics with appealing handfeel. In adding fabric to paintings, Self is incorporating a medium designed to be touched in a form that forbids it. And this tension spurs desire, while imbuing her avatars with humanity. In every stitch, her hand is present and each piece of soft fabric calls to the hand of the viewer. She paints figures who want to be touched and who we want to touch in turn.

Contributors:

  • Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor who has written for publications including Esquire, Vice, and Jezebel. She’s a New York native and alumna of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

    Photo Credit: Gabrielle Bruney

  • Araba Ankuna

    Araba Ankuma is a visual storyteller currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. Araba was educated in the art of image-making and perception while studying within the University of Pennsylvania’s unique Visual Studies program. In January 2017, she founded ASA Productions LLC., dedicated to the production of narrative-based visual content created by artists of color.

    Photo Credit: Araba Ankuna

  • Sophia Jennings

    Sophia Jennings is the Head of Content at I Weigh. Prior to I Weigh, she was the Creative Executive at The Creative Studio, a production company founded by Scooter Braun Projects and BBH LA. Her writing has been published by Rolling Stone, MTV, The Coveteur, and numerous other publications.

    Photo Credit: Lily Vetch