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This week we meet with Tschabalala Self, whose work explores ideas surrounding the black female body; and her assignment asks you to consider your own body as a symbol too.

1. Make a line drawing of a shape that represents you
2. Fill this object with a color or pattern
3. Share it using #theartassignment
4. Fame and glory (Your work may be in a future video)

Learn more about Tschabalala and her work:
Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:
This episode is supported by Prudential.

[PBS Digital Studios theme]

Sarah: Today we're meeting up with Tschabalala Self, who's originally from New York and now lives here in New Haven, Connecticut. Her work combines drawn, painted, and printed elements with sewing and binding techniques to explore the iconographic significance of the black female body in contemporary culture. She offers us a panoply of subjects, who are aware and yet seemingly unmoved by the fact that we are looking at them.

Through these depictions, we begin to consider the attitudes and fantasies that have surrounded the black female body in history and in the present. Her work masterfully manipulates, amplifies, and distorts these ideas, while also rendering multi-dimensional subjects that have agency and power. Tschabalala is gonna talk with us today about her work and also give us an assignment that asks us to consider our own bodies as symbols.

Tschabalala: I'm Tschabalala Self, and this is your art assignment.

[Art Assignment theme]

Tschabalala: The images all start from a drawing, and from the drawing I try to build a body or build the features of the subject I'm creating. So I'll usually have, like, a simple line drawing of how I want my characters to look, and from there I build the faces through sewing and grabbing of various materials. And all the materials are materials I collected or have just accumulated in my studio, so fabric, old paintings, paper, debris from my family home, old clothing, just kind of all different objects that come into my life that have the ability to go through the sewing machine can end up in one of the characters and one of the figures.

I think they are really, sincerely built bit by bit--and little objects, little parts, that kind of make a whole. Well, it's more basing things on my imagination or, I guess, basing my reference point as how I imagine something might feel rather than how it actually looks. So I'm drawing something, I guess, I put priority on objects I think might be noticed first or objects that have a certain kind of psychological or physical weight to them. So that kind of determines a scale of things- how abstracted something is, or how realistically drawn it is, how recognizable it is and how it's rendered, or how strange it is, how personal or how generic it is, is it an object or an icon. A lot of the portraits are made from basically accumulating different shapes and building a person through shapes, and you know, that's kind of how I see people.

Big Red is one of my cut out sculptures. So those are made with sheets of wood that I cut out with a jigsaw. Those are just extenuations of my shapes. The first group of those that I made, I made them to flank a group of paintings I created. And the idea was to kind of give legs to the work. This idea that you have this painting on the wall, but I wanted an aspect of the painting to be in the space with the viewer, to interact with the viewer in a way that, you know, kind of corrupted this implied power dynamic of someone standing in this space looking at an object. So I wanted the idea that maybe the object's in your space, or maybe this object is animated.

If you were a shape, what shape would you be? Make a line drawing of a shape you think represents yourself. Try to avoid known shapes. Fill this object with a color or pattern or some combination thereof.

John: So Sarah, I love this assignment because in contemporary life we are constantly being asked to come up with avatars of ourselves, some kind of image that will represent us, but this is asking us to do it in a very different and interesting way.

Sarah: That's right because as so much of what we see online is people obviously drawing from a picture they already have of themselves, or something that they like, or a symbol of an existing movement, but this asks you to start from scratch and to think about how you might represent yourself without any of those fallbacks. And to think about what is the shape, what is the icon that is truly you?

John: This is a hard one for me though because it's really difficult to think so abstractly about myself, you know?

Sarah: Yeah, I think this is one where you have to just sit down and start sketching or sit down at your computer and start playing around. You don't necessarily have to have an idea from the start. I think you can sort of build it, just like Tschabalala builds her figures.

John: But Sarah is going to help give you some ideas, hopefully, in her history of the silhouette.

[Swoosh sound]

Sarah: When Pliney the Elder wrote his Natural History around 79 CE, he shared a popular legend about the origin of painting. So the story goes: the daughter of Butades of Corinth was so in love with a man about to head off into battle, that she traced around his shadow as it was cast on the wall by a lamp. Butades was a potter, and when he saw this, he filled in the profile with clay and fired it, making it into a relief. The profile portrait persisted and became mega popular in the eighteenth century, in book illustration, and as a pre photography alternative to the painted portrait for the non-wealthy.The cheaply produced images came to be called "silhouettes," after French finance minister Etienne de Silhoutte, infamous for his austerity.

The silhouette is cheap in other ways, of course, leaving out a tremendous amount of information in its depiction of an individual. Tshchabalala is challenging you to create a shape that shrugs off the burden of realism, to make a form that can represent you more accurately and intriguingly than what your mere shadow dictates. You then fill it with color, pattern, material, texture, more information, and more opportunity to extend and explore the shape of yourself.

[Swoosh sound]

Tschabalala: For some people, I think it's going to embody how they feel that people see them, and for other people, it can be an object that embodies how they wish they were seen. So I think either experience could be cathartic. Even claiming something about yourself, or dispelling something you feel like is projected onto you, so I think this is an important exercise to do to just to do like a mental exercise. And Also, you know yourself better than anyone else, so if you were to make a shape of anyone, I think you'd probably have the most success at making a shape of yourself.

[Swoosh sound]

I'm just gonna grab a piece of paper, use the floor, and just draw a shape I think represents myself, and I might just add some solid color blocks to it, but other people can add patterns, colors, bright colors, watercolors, any kind of medium they want. But the most important thing is that it's a consistent shape--a closed shape, and it cannot be--it should not be a realistic depiction of yourself. It should be something that's somewhat like an icon or a symbol.

Maybe they should think about what they associate most with themselves, if that's a part of their body, that's something outside of themselves, an activity, a passion. I first thought people should lean away from other cultural signs, but then I watched a documentary the other day about Prince, and his symbol is actually a perfect example, and that's kind of a mixture of already existing cultural signs that he kind of just subverted to make one that spoke to him specifically. So I think that you can use other--maybe some kind of take on other symbols that already exist.


Sarah:This episode was supported by Prudential. The time between when people think they should start saving for retirement and when they actually do is known as the action gap.

John: And according to a recent survey conducted by Prudential, the average Americans start saving for retirement seven years later than they think is best, which can cost over $410,000 in a lifetime.

Sarah: Prudential also found that 80% of Anericans have never estimated how much retirement may cost.

John: One in three Americans is not saving enough for their retirement, and over half are not on track to maintain their current standard of living when they retire.

Sarah: Go to and see how the action gap affects you. 

[Art Assignment theme music]