Art Market

Inside Tschabalala Self’s Complicated, Meteoric Rise through the Art Market

Alina Cohen
Nov 6, 2019 10:32PM

Tschabalala Self, Floor Dance, 2016. Courtesy of Christie's.

On November 14th, 29-year-old artist Tschabalala Self’s bold, expressive mixed-media painting Floor Dance (2016) will go up for auction at Christie’s afternoon sale of post-war and contemporary art. The composition features a checkerboard background, which functions as a grid that fades as it reaches up the canvas. A central figure—black with green hair—appears to do the splits across this patterned floor, her legs extending nearly to the painting’s edges. Six arms emerge from her midsection, suggesting she’s in motion, mid-groove. Her leopard-print outfit, protruding breast, pointy outstretched tongue, and painted fingernails and toenails conjure a strong, independent female character.

At Christie’s, however, she’ll be subject to the whims of the market and the daytime bidders, with a literal price on her head. Following the rapid rise in Self’s popularity among collectors and curators, the auction house has set Floor Dance’s estimate at $120,000 to $180,000. The same week as the Christie’s sale, Phillips will auction off two more paintings by Self—Star (2015), expected to bring between $80,000 and $120,000, and Mista & Mrs. (2016), estimated at $120,000 to $180,000.


Since Self graduated from the Yale School of Art in 2015, she’s enjoyed—and suffered—an astounding art world trajectory. Prices for her paintings have increased more than 30-fold over the past five years, only sometimes to her benefit. She has gained international respect and recognition, but she’s also lost significant control over where her artworks end up. The story of Self’s rapidly rising popularity is a case study in the pleasures and perils of early-career acclaim for young artists.

Born in Harlem, Self studied studio art at Bard College before attending Yale for her MFA. As a painting student interested in printmaking, she found inventive ways to combine both modes of artmaking. Self recalled hitting a wall with printmaking, given its limitations in scale and durability. While she wanted to return to a more traditional painting practice, she was still interested in using the handmade, “collographic” plates she’d worked with in her print process. Self used these plates to create patterns and impressions on canvas. Sewing patterned fabrics atop her surfaces, she created vibrant patchwork figures that integrated craft elements into her practice.

Before she graduated from Yale, Self had already shown her work in group shows around New York and in a solo presentation at Schur-Narula, a Berlin gallery. A 2015 visit to the Lower East Side gallery Thierry Goldberg for a friend’s opening proved consequential. Self introduced herself to co-owner Ron Segev, and the pair set up a studio visit. Segev recalled liking what he saw, though Self was making works on paper at the time. He offered her an exhibition, and her first New York solo show, “Out of Body,” opened in May 2015.

By this time, she’d turned to canvases, which Segev thought were “amazing.” Throughout the exhibition’s eight paintings, wide-open eyes became a prominent motif. In this way, Self’s canvases stared right back at viewers, challenging their gazes. Across backdrops both monochromatic and filled with these large peepers, Self created figures that conveyed race and gender with stereotypical signifiers: large buttocks, braids, breasts, painted fingernails, and dark skin tones. At the gallery, collectors could purchase a large painting for under $10,000. The following fall, Thierry Goldberg held a second show of Self’s work, “Gut Feelings.” Roberta Smith, co-chief art critic at the New York Times, wrote a positive review for the paper, praising the work’s “swirls of energy” and “marvelous random intricacy.” According to Segev, the write-up generated additional collector interest.

Thierry Goldberg’s presentations built sales momentum and generated curatorial interest, sparking a string of institutional showcases. Self showed a suite of paintings—including Floor Dance—at the New Museum’s buzzy exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” (2017–18). Amanda Donnan, a curator at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, recalled seeing Self’s work for the first time at the show. She also called Self’s paintings “amazing,” citing their “immediate, graphic punch and warm, generous materiality.” These elements were “sort of a hook” for Donnan into “complex questions about race and gender and representation.” Donnan gave Self her first solo museum presentation in the United States, which opened at the Frye this past January.

Installation view of Tschabalala Self, “Bodega Run,” at Pilar Corrias Gallery, London, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias Gallery.

In Los Angeles, curator Anne Ellegood first saw Self’s work in a 2016 group show at Art + Practice, curated by Jamillah James and called “A Shape That Stands Up.” “There was something very captivating and kind of beautiful about the way she was looking at the female figure and women of color. Something empowering and striking,” Ellegood recalled. She became more familiar with Self’s work and watched it move away from “stereotypical imagery” into more “celebratory” representations. The curator eventually offered Self the opportunity to create a special project for the Hammer Museum, where Ellegood was working at the time (as of September, she’s now the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).

This past February, Self created an iteration of her “Bodega Run” series at the Hammer, transforming the exhibition space into a faux–New York bodega, complete with sculptures, paintings, product-patterned wallpaper, flooring, and a convex security mirror. Self had mounted a different version of the installation at Thierry Goldberg’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December 2018, which sold out within an hour of the fair’s opening.

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body , 2015. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Tschabalala Self, Out of Body , 2015. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Given all this rising attention, it was no surprise when Self’s work appeared at auction for the first time this past March, at Phillips. Rebekah Bowling, head of day sales at Phillips, recalled that Self was “one of those artists we always track and target” due to the difficulty of securing her work on the primary market, significant institutional support, and placement within prominent private collections. When Phillips was offered a work, Lilith (2015), the house believed that placing it in the elite evening sale context would “be an exciting way to start the sale,” Bowling said. And Phillips was right: At its 20th Century and Contemporary Evening Art Sale in London, the painting sold for £125,000 ($164,400), a sum just more than double its high estimate of £60,000 ($79,000).

The successful result, however, started to look like chump change in June. At a Christie’s sale in London that month, another 2015 canvas, Out of Body, raked in £371,250 ($473,000)—more than six times the high estimate of £60,000 ($76,400)—with more than 20 bidders competing for the work.

That same week, figurative works by other black female artists—including Amy Sherald and Toyin Ojih Odutola—all set new auction records for the individuals’ markets. “Female Artists With African Backgrounds Are Winners at Phillips Auction in London,” a New York Times headline proclaimed, despite the fact that the artists themselves didn’t actually win anything. It’s easy to see growing collector interest in Self’s work as part of a larger market trend—which reduces Self’s oeuvre to its most basic description, and the artist herself to her gender and ethnicity.

Installation view of Tschabalala Self, “Thigh High,” at Pilar Corrias, London, October–November 2019. Photo by Damian Griffiths. Courtesy of the artist and Pilar Corrias, London.

Since the June sale of Out of Body, six more of Self’s works have gone to auction, all handily beating their high estimates. In October, Christie’s auctioned off another 2015 canvas, Sapphire, which once again broke the record for Self’s market, selling for £395,000 ($487,000). Meanwhile, Self has quietly switched gallery allegiances in New York: In September, Eva Presenhuber announced that it would be representing the artist in the city, instead of Thierry Goldberg. Self is also represented by London’s Pilar Corrias Gallery, where her second solo show closes November 9th.

“I was immediately drawn to Tschabalala’s distinctive style and captivating characters, and I believe her work is vital to current discourses in the art world and beyond,” Presenhuber said. She’ll mount the gallery’s first solo presentation of Self’s work early next year. Institutional support also continues to grow—in 2020, both the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and the Baltimore Museum of Art will give Self solo shows.

Christie’s is aware of the challenges facing young artists whose artworks go to auction. “The sustainability of any young artist’s career is always fragile and must be addressed and nurtured by all members of the art market—from auction houses to museums and collectors to dealers,” specialist Kat Widing said. She added that the auction house must be “thoughtful to only include young artists who have robust support systems and high market demand.” Widing also noted that 23 parties, from all around the globe, were interested in Out of Body. Such intense demand has encouraged the auction houses to keep seeking out more supply. Bowling echoed Widing in her defense of the auctions. “The nice part about it is it’s a completely democratic process,” she said. “The person who wants to pay the most wins the work.”

For her part, Self is not looking forward to the Christie’s auction on November 14th. She won’t benefit from the sale, as all proceeds will go to Christie’s and the seller. Self noted that she hasn’t cultivated relationships with any collectors besides Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a civil rights activist and arts patron known for championing black artists. Cooper Cafritz, whom Self considered a good friend, passed away in 2018. Beyond the lack of personal financial gain, the entire concept of the auction is triggering for Self.

“I view the auction as a tasteless spectacle, and I am shocked that the irony of such an event is lost on so many people,” she said. “As an American descendant of slavery, auctions have a particular historical meaning and politics. I am disheartened that black figures I have produced and fashioned are now sold and traded within a similar context.”

Alina Cohen