"Bodega," the Spanish word for a small variety store, is an beloved feature of any neighborhood with a Latinx population: Los Angeles, Miami. In Harlem, it overlaps with the Black population and is inspiration for an art installation by New York- based artist Tschabalala Self called Bodega Run.
Bodegas offer a kaleidoscope of shopping options from lottery tickets to detergent to donuts to beer. Music plays, people chat, a bodega is social refuge in increasingly sterile cities.
Self grew up in Harlem with its rich and diverse history and noticed that even there, gentrification was threatening these lively centers. With degrees from Bard and Yale, she recognized the threat to authenticity and history from even well-meaning creatives moving into the area.
She is known for her representations of full-figured Black women made using pieces of fabric stitched into voluptuous compositions. In this show, Self has added sculptural versions of those figures to populate her bodega society.
At the Hammer, when you walk into her version of the little store, you are confronted by the ample buttocks of a clothed woman leaning over in a way that leaves little to the imagination. Larger than life, it is a painted cut-out figure operating on two and three dimensions. Both shocking and funny, it says that life at a bodega is just that, life in all its weird and wonderful moments.
The floor is covered in linoleum stripes of red, green and black — colors of the pan-African flag — and the walls papered with hand-drawn shelves bearing jars of apple sauce, mayonaise, Goya nectars. (A nod to Goya as masterful observer of 18th and 19th century social hierarchies.) Hanging on the wall are her sewn fabric panels: a woman walking and smoking, another crouching before the glassed refrigerator and removing a bottle of Negro Modela beer. (Again the double entendre, the beer being chosen by the Black model.) Or maybe she selects it for the bearded Black man towering above her, hands in pockets, though he seems more inclined to Ballantine Ale.
On another wall, the hand drawn shelves offer Hershey bars and M&Ms. A woman reaches into a cooler for ice cream. Taking in the entire scene is a pair of booted legs with a round security mirror behind where they stand. He may be the proprietor but he is not all there. However, we are, meandering around the bodega, seeing ourselves in that mirror.
Bringing to mind Claes Oldenburg’s The Store of 1961, where his papier mache commodities could be purchased, Self has been making these bodega environments for just a few years. They are an ideal way to present her cast of characters in all their humanity, people maintaining familiar and intimate experiences with one another despite huge pressures from without.
Organized by Hammer curator Anne Ellegood, the Self show continues through April 28.
By the way, there is another opportunity to see work by Self in Dirty Protest, a potent show of pieces from the Hammer’s collection organized by Connie Butler.
In addition, a work by Self is one of many excellent pieces in Dreamweavers, a well-chosen selection of art organized by Nicola Vassell for Kaseem Dean (Swizz Beatz) at UTA Artists Space through April 13.