I’ve always wanted to do work that had mystery. For example, if you were to look at it, you wouldn’t quite understand how it was made. As a painter, I was hoping to add something to the larger lexicon and say, “OK, I’ve contributed to a new way of doing a painting.” Maybe it’s an ego thing, but I felt like I had to create some sort of formal look that was very unique to me and my studio practice so someone could look at a piece of work and say, “Oh, it’s a painting by Tschabalala. When I was in graduate school at Yale, my main focus was on printmaking. And I got a lot of success out of it, but there were also limits. That’s how I started sewing fabric directly onto the canvas. It has many of the same qualities as engraving: integrated color, texture and design.
My mother collected the fabric and I still use a lot of the pieces. She sewed all the time, mostly as a hobby. So I thought of the sewing machine as a tool that could be used as a creative outlet. When I was growing up, my mother told me that I should learn to sew, but I never had the patience to sit down and do it. I ended up teaching myself at the graduate school. But I don’t really know how to sew. My mother could make a dress, curtains, an entire outfit! I can not do that.
For me, sewing is a kind of collage. Before I found this way of working, people would ask me, “How do you see yourself compared to your numbers?” Maybe I have a Pygmalion-like relationship with work – with the idea that you can actually build something that’s outside of you, but also an expression of a figure or character ideal you have in mind. Additionally, people interact with sewn objects every day. And there is this association with my mother, who is one of the most important people for me. To work this way is to honor it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.