A bouquet of roses, a can of sweetened condensed milk, a travel-sized tube of hair gel. There is this game I loved to play on my morning subway ride to school, where my classmate would pick someone who was exiting the train and I would guess their last in-store purchases. We took a quick look as the doors were closing, seeing them fall out of our periphery as the train left the station, and I would still be in a half-thought about a last minute drugstore buy. Our public selves make momentary assumptions about others, and are also subject to that focus.  

Ol’ Bay is from Tschabalala Self’s 2017 project, Bodega Run, encompassing the people, products, and everyday activities that make up the ubiquitous urban corner store. Each figure is set in these hallmarks of colored metropolitan life in New York, sites for social and political interpretation. Often operated by people of color to serve their communities, bodegas are microcosms of multicultural exchange. They are celebrated for camaraderie, late-night service, and unwavering commitment to the neighborhoods’ necessities. The avatars in Self’s series are based on characters you may pass in these places or encounter in the world. In Ol’ Bay, we are faced with familiar items and a larger-than-life personality.  

I was fortunate enough to engage a group of museum goers in a Friday night pop-up talk about Ol’ Bay. While the paintings were arranged in the galleries to evoke a walk down the street, we were able to slow down and identify what materials are used, discern the cans behind the figure, and reflect on immediate feelings about the painting. Some comments included “It looks like someone just called her name from the door. Maybe she is well known there,” “I put on lipstick to go to the store too,” and “Who is out of frame?” We confronted the scale of the piece and all of the assumptions that can be made about who this person is.  

Tschabalala Self informs each of these figures as composites of interactions of the body in the social world, interacting with objects, spaces, and others. We take the time to regard the difference between who this subject is intimately, what they put forward, what is recognized through social engagement, and ultimately, what is lost.   

Kelly Chen started at the ICA in Fall 2019 as a Visitor Assistant, and is a film student and arts community organizer. She is particularly interested in surveillance media, found footage, and public domain video. She is also a short fiction writer and printmaker whose work explores community, labor history, and kitsch.  

Friday Art Notes are personal reflections on works of art shown or in the permanent collection of the ICA, written by ICA staff, volunteers, and supporters. Read more