Interview with Mahari Chabwera

Mahari Chabwera is a recent BFA graduate from Painting and Printmaking at VCUArts, whose painting, Grace of Yemeyah, won Poictesme’s 2017 Editor’s Choice Award for art. 

I visited Mahari’s studio to talk about her work, influences, and life after graduating. In her workspace, large, unstretched pieces of canvas cover the walls. In-progress figurative paintings built upon with velvety layers of paint are topped with sections of glass and gold leaf. On an opposite wall, small, richly-hued paintings of figurines and masks mirror the themes often found in the work, alluding to spiritual narratives and mythologies, and references to art history.

Megan Goldfarb: My professors once asked us a question about the purpose and essence of our practice, and I liked the way that they phrased it. They asked us, “What is your inquiry?” I was wondering, from the time that you were in undergrad, in your practice, what was your inquiry then?  What were you seeking as an artist? And then how has that inquiry changed?

Mahari Chabwera: What is your inquiry?

MG: Yeah, that was the way that they phrased it. What was your investigation, your question?

MC: I don’t even think I considered my work in that way until maybe Carolina Aranibar-Fernandez’s class, which was junior year. I feel like a lot of that moment was almost a clash of two different really strong influences: the content of her projects, and the return of my mentor Asa Jackson back into town. He started running his gallery, 670 gallery in Hampton Roads. Asa was the first example of an artist that I knew. Like a real, live artist. I was twelve or eleven and he was seventeen or eighteen; he was the cool guy. He is beautiful, he was an athletic star of all the sports that he played, and he was a genius. And a phenomenal artist — like “Tier One” at everything he touched. There were these huge — they had to be like 9-foot by 9-foot or 8-foot by 8-foot — black paintings on panel that had imagery that was pushed back, and words that were pushed back and pulled forward. It was very expressive, but minimal at the same time. I remember there were some curse words in it; and we went to a predominantly white private school in suburban Newport News and the faculty there made him cover up the curse words with tape. And I remember peeling back the tape to read the words underneath.

I think that, not only did I fall in love with the idea of what an artist can do because of seeing his work so early, but I saw it as something that I could actually do. You know? And then getting to work with him so closely over the past couple of years, he probably taught me more than all of the faculty combined at VCU. [Laughs]. Honestly. He taught me what quality work was, he taught me how important it is to just read, to be inquisitive about everything, and how dedicated you have to be and how patient you have to be. That’s something I’m still working on — the patience part. He moved to L.A. like two or three months ago. I did not think he would stay around as long as he did. He’s a supernova if ever I’ve seen one in the flesh.

MG: That’s a great description.

MC: And so, working on the projects in Carolina’s class and having conversations with him, I think that, in a burst, I became much more critical about what I was doing. Now when I look back on it, it feels very bland, but I think I was considering standards of beauty, I was considering history, I was considering the history that I knew that most people were inundated with and that not being the fullest history, you know? Like that history being a very white-washed European perspective. And so I was thinking about how to visualize that history while also bringing in the fullness of black bodies and black beauty. I think that at the most basic level I’m still doing the same thing, but I think I’m trying to be more interesting to myself. You know what I mean? I’m trying to deal with what is not existing in the world and what I think is beautiful and what I think is of value, and how that relates to the historical canon that we are surrounded by, but just like, in a cooler way.

MG: Can you talk about how you’ve maintained and developed your studio practice after school? You are very productive. How have you organized your practice and pushed yourself to continue to make work?

MC: Honestly, this is literally all I want to do. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to go to work [laughs]. A bunch of our friends play Monopoly almost every night of the week, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a game. I don’t want to do anything else or be anywhere else but be in the studio. It was not a question that when we moved to this new house that this larger room was going to be the studio and I was going to spend as much time in here as physically possible.

I feel like I don’t know enough, too. And I think that’s what pushes me. I don’t know enough about the histories that I paint about and the mythologies that I paint about; I don’t know enough spiritually. I want to know so much more. I feel like in a lot of ways I’m surrounded by so many extremely smart, wise, well-read people and I want to be on their level, and that makes me stay in here and that makes me continue to make work.

I’m doing a lot of research too. I just got this book, it’s a guide to getting arts grants…

MG: Be a good writer…

MC: Yeah. But I feel like you have to play the game too. You know?

MG: Oh yeah. You have to play the game.

MC: And that part is the part that gets me. I’ll play it if it fits. But if it doesn’t fit me I can’t play it. You know what I mean?

MG: I feel like a lot of the time the game doesn’t fit.

MC: You know, not for me as much as I feel like for my peers sometimes. I just remember it being one of the first days of our merit studio class and we were talking about grad schools, and it felt like the whole class was shitting on grad schools and shitting on the fact that going and getting your MFA automatically puts you in this other realm as an artist. It just felt very taboo to want to be an artist in a way where your work is sustaining your life. You know? I don’t get that.

MG: I mean they talk about the different realms that artists operate in, like who you want to sell your work to, right? So I think there’s like this rhetoric that you have to get an MFA to – unless you really get lucky- to get into the sort of art world where it’s like tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a huge painting, but then so often it seems like they frown upon the small commercial galleries in a local city. You know?

MC: But it’s like, why frown on any of it?

MG: It’s really academic.

MC: I mean if people want to go that route then let them be elitist and academic. I feel like sometimes… All the time people are trying to tell you the right way to do things and not just letting it happen. You know what I mean? Not just letting people just exist. And I’ve felt a lot of that. And I don’t know if that’s just me, you know, I’m pretty soft and pretty sensitive. I don’t know if that was just me picking up on stuff that I wasn’t getting but I felt that way.

MG: I mean I think about it. I think about where I wanted to sell work, and what I thought I would be making paintings for before I came into school and that obviously drastically changed. I mean I think it’s something that’s good to be aware of, but it shouldn’t —

MC: — it’s one way, yeah, to think of things.

MG: And that’s academic elitism for you. Wow is that part really going to be published? I hope none of our teachers read this.

MC: [Laughs]. No, I mean, I think honestly more times than not they’re on this wavelength. You know what I mean? They’re professors at this institution but they know it, they feel it, they see it. You know? They play into it.

And that’s another reason I feel really grateful about 670 Gallery and the people that I was working with simultaneously back home and at school. Because it was that academic and that non-academic together. Not that those artists weren’t reading and striving, but it was for the love of the work and for the goal of being able to sustain oneself off of their practice. And I feel really lucky to have had these two things happening for me at the same time.

MG: What was the original question?

MC: I don’t remember.

MG: Me either.

How do you consider your role as an artist making work in the world today?

MC: I was reading something recently— I admire a lot of authors, and increasingly authors like Toni Morrison. I came across one perspective that- and I can’t remember what it was in an eloquent way— but it was basically saying that it’s shitty for an artist, writer, whatever, creator, maker— it is shitty for them to use their practice as a way to self-actualize. It was saying, like, that’s selfish. And then I came across another perspective that basically said the opposite; that said that artists need to self-actualize before they can even go into the world and do anything sustainable or good. And I think I fall within that last way of thinking about making.

I feel like right now there’s a place that I need to get to just as a person and I’m using my work as a tool to get to that place, and once I get there I can reevaluate how to effectively change the things that I see in my community that really fucking suck. Because trying to do it right now— like me, working as a counselor this summer at the youth development center, being an art instructor, that was me trying to go in a community and say, “Okay, I have this privilege, I have this knowledge, I have this time. Let me give it and see what happens.” But the whole structure of that organization was really shitty. And the little bit that I was doing was not enough to smooth over the shittiness. And so I know I need more resources, and I know I need more knowledge, and I know I need more contacts. And it is my goal to get to that place through the work that I’m making right now.

MG: That was a good answer.

MC: That’s good. [Laughs]. That’s good.

MG: And where does that point end?

MC: I don’t think I quite know exactly where that endpoint is for me either. But I definitely know there is one, because I see it in my partner Josh. He’s reached his endpoint in knowing himself. Asa, same thing: he’s reached a point where he knows himself enough, he knows his purpose enough, that now he can go and start to actualize things outside of himself. So I definitely know it’s possible and I know that I’m a hell of a lot closer today than I was at, say, the beginning of senior year. And that’s also a really cool thing to see too. It’s one thing to talk about growth and it’s another thing to actually feel like you’re actually growing and that’s really beautiful.

MG: Yeah it’s definitely weird to look back like, one year, or a few years and be like, “Holy shit, how did I — I was a totally different person then. I totally thought about everything— art included— so differently then.” But it really wasn’t that long ago.

MC: I’m sure when I look at this interview two years from now I’m going to be like, “Mahari, shut the fuck up.” But right now I feel so invested in everything that I think and everything that I’m doing and I’m in it and I feel it and I want to stand by it… And then I’m open to, a couple of years from now, throwing it all away and being like, “No, now this is where I stand.” And I think that’s also something that’s hard for people to do too. It’s hard for people to make a statement and then turn around a moment later and be like, “Oh no, my bad, I was wrong, now this is what I think.” I guess I’ve messed up so many things so many times that now I’m used to doing that.

MG: Looking at the work in your studio right now, can you talk about how you see yourself using the nude? It’s a recurring main subject in your larger paintings.

MC: Let me think about that for a second. There’s a couple of different ways that I can answer that and I’m going to start from what feels most right.

When I started painting the nude I was in high school and I was taking pictures of my sister and painting her. And, again, it just… it felt right. I don’t know where my head was at 16 to think, “Okay, this is what I want my AP concentration work to be” in my art classes. But maybe if I were to really think about it, it would definitely come from a place of feeling like nude bodies are beautiful; specifically, black nude bodies are beautiful. When I grew up it was just my mom and my sister and I in the house and we were all, like, naked all the time. Okay, not so much my sister. And maybe not really even my mom. My mom would just be like, maybe in her room or whatever, but really it was me. I mean I was naked all the time. I would literally walk downstairs naked, even when friends, not just family, were over.  

But it’s always comfortable, it’s always been just natural.

MG: What is ‘natural’ though?

MC: I think ‘natural’ is something that’s innate to a child, in a way. Natural is an environment that you grow up in. So things are natural to each respective person. And for me, black, female nudity was natural, is natural. I didn’t know about the history of America sexualizing black women. I didn’t know about black women being self conscious— women being self-conscious— about their bodies. I didn’t know about any of that. I just knew that I was surrounded by black women— like I grew up around black women— my aunt, my mom, my grandmother, and my sister, and I used to see them naked all the time. When they were changing, when they were just in life or whatever, there was never “Oh close the door.” There was never any of that. And I’ve never thought about this before in that way but I think that’s probably what made it so much of the next step for me as an artist to start with the form in that way. And now I still source my references from them. I get my mom to pose for me sometimes, or my sister… I use my body pretty often now because it’s all that’s sort of right here and easy to use. All the layering of what the black female form is nude, how we exist under white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and still claim black women’s bodies as a place for delight, pleasure, beauty and spiritual connectivity, all of that definitely came way later.

And I don’t think— this is obviously just my opinion as an artist— but I don’t think I’ve ever painted in a way that’s sexualized the body. Like I don’t think that’s sexualized [points to a painting.] Maybe there’s a bit of me saying, “We exist outside of that.” We just exist, divinely, and comfortably, and it just is.

It’s wild how much your parents and your childhood inform everything about you as an adult.

My dad, too— I was actually talking with another woman about this recently and it was like an “Aha” moment for me— but the content of my work— the historical and mythological and spiritual content— that’s straight from my dad. My dad, growing up, was a bit more like your typical ‘70s ‘black militant male,’ and progressively has gotten more spiritual and more narrow-mindedly dogmatic in his views. But from a very early age it was always all this history and all of this theology that wasn’t really pushed on me, but that I was surrounded by. And that was a very clear thing that made my dad who he is. That’s where my name comes from. My dad was born Rodney Darrell Carter, and changed his name to Rasheed Darrell Waleed Chabwera in college. That shift was very much a symbol of his path of becoming conscious of self and conscious of God. He changed his name— and then he married my mom, and my sister and I happened— and he said, you know, “My daughters are not going to have enslaved names. They’re going to have Muslim names, they’re going to have Black names, they are going to come into this world with meaning, with purpose, with knowledge of self.”

I think that if my dad had not been a partial father, I would have known myself more. I feel like in a lot of ways I’m literally tracing all of the things that he traced in his life. But I’m just an artist instead.

MG: A graduate student once asked me, “Does the body contain the soul, or does the soul contain the body?” How do you view the body of the figure in relationship to the soul? Does it contain it, does it present boundaries or limitations? Is that something that matters for you?

MC: Yeah. I think, to answer the first part; the body absolutely contains the soul. And to answer the second part; I think of the soul as consciousness, and the different types of consciousness. And I think that the body presents the soul with certain distractions or constraints that the soul has to overcome. For instance, my body is presenting my soul with the constraints of womanhood and blackness and any other role that I allow to be placed on my body. I think the ways for me to surpass those constraints come from me making artworks and researching the origin of my body and soul. It comes from learning, reading, feeding my mind, feeding my soul. I think that ultimately that’s what I’m trying to do in my work, even more so that’s what I’m trying to do with my life. And I think that’s our purpose here: to figure out how to nourish our souls and get them to the highest place that we can physically get them. And for different people that comes in different ways. I think about people sometimes that don’t even think about their soul. That’s a whole other rabbit hole. But I also think that’s a part of why I’m so invested visually in mythology. Because this concern with one’s soul is something that western culture has completely thrown away. Completely trampled on, burned. I understand it, but it saddens me and I think that’s part of why we are where we are as a country. You know, we used to do research about the soul. In antiquity we understood what the soul was, and how to nourish it. I think that there are many paths to that. That is a large part of the reason why I make the work that I make, to sort of re-introduce these mythologies, these stories, back into our culture. These guides to understanding our reason for being. The paintings are just a tool for me to try to get to that, and then share that understanding. Like Kwame Ture said, we must collectively struggle to bring the level of consciousness of the people to the highest peaks of the mountain.

MG: I point to a series of 9” by 12” paintings hung in a grid on the studio wall. They illustrate artifacts— masks, deity statues, each from a specific African or Asian community— painted onto a rich color background.

Do you think that has something to do with the little paintings you are doing right now?

MC: Absolutely— these are coming from a couple of places. They come from just finding them really beautiful and wanting to paint them as a meditation, and also being engaged with  the similarities between cultures. When you do find those familiar moments between these peoples and traditions that feel kind of far away from each other; that’s really beautiful and to me, and that helps fuel this idea of oneness that runs through every living thing.

Though I do feel like in other circles that realization feels taboo, and I don’t feel like it’s something I can openly talk about

MG: Like the academic circle.

MC: Exactly. I feel like it counters every other knowledge that I have, when in fact it fuels all of the other knowledge that I have.

I’m noticing that spirituality is a trend in— I would say social media culture, but for me— and I don’t want to generalize and say it’s just black culture— but that’s kind of where my social media space and a lot of my environment is, so that’s where I see the trend.

I think that that happens and that’s a problem, and I think that when that happens, too, you have people jumping onto the bandwagon but not actually coming from a place of real understanding. And so again, for me, I want to come from that place. So I do the readings that I do and I’m trying to write as much information as I find out on these 9” by 12” paintings so that when they do get purchased or when they are in other hands, people aren’t just looking at this pretty culture, right? Because it is pretty, it’s bright colors, but they’re also engaging with something that they don’t know about, and that maybe will get them to consider deeply why the objects were made and what they helped these people, entire civilizations achieve.

MG: What artists influence you? What have you been reading?

MC: I’ve been really invested in Toni Morrison recently and that’s the only author that’s coming to mind right now. I read Zula and I read The Bluest Eye and now I’m reading Beloved. I think part of what I’m doing in my practice is honing in on this moment in time that I feel like is ignored or underappreciated or misunderstood, and I think that’s exactly what Toni Morrison does. But her moments are those of young, black girls. She shows me the type of artist that I want to be, the type of painter I want to be; how fully I want to capture this moment that I feel like I need to be painting about. She is sort of the guide there. People like Toni Morrison or bell hooks- I love watching bell hooks lectures, because of the way that these women carry themselves, the way that they exist in the world. And Carrie Mae Weems— oh my God, Carrie Mae Weems— she is so regal. I struggle with taking up space. Although I make these bright-ass paintings and these big-ass paintings I struggle with taking up space in my body. I don’t know why; I feel like that’s a whole other thing why I do. These authors show me a whole other way to exist in the world.

Wangechi Mutu and Mickalene Thomas and Kerry James Marshall are all big hitters for me who inspire my work too. In his show Mastery, Kerry James Marshall talks about getting to that level of knowing enough about something, being able to do it so well, that it becomes effortless. There’s no need to try to do or be like other people, because you’re so good at this thing that you can just do it like it’s breathing, and then you, your soul, the part of you that’s unique to you, that comes out too. And so people who have achieved that in their life are the people whom I admire and who inspire me.

I also think there has to be a balance in my artwork that things are very obviously beautiful and also just naturally kind of political. I think that those two things should exist simultaneously in work. Or at least I’m trying to make them exist in my work in my way. Because, I mean, a black woman imaging herself and other black bodies as deities is unfortunately political.

MG: How has writing influenced your practice? I know you’ve written manifestos recently. Can you describe that process?

MC: So the process is definitely pulling from writing but also music— music is a big part of my process and I’ve been trying to actually pull that out a bit. A professor once equated me to trying to block out my own voice by listening to music when I work… I listen to music when I work and when I write, to artists like India Arie and Jill Scott. They sing the way that I want to paint. They talk about purpose and they talk about black men and black women and they talk about body and they talk about self… They sing about existing wholly in the world and existing wholly in accordance with the source, or God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call that. I feel like the artists that I listen to, the writers that I read and listen to are like mothers in a way, you know? Or just guides. And so I am pulling from that and I am pulling from snippets of things that I read. And for the manifestos— sometimes it was also me combing through all of my writings in my journals and finding some of the things that I write or underlined and thinking, “That’s a good thought.”

I think though, in a weird way, maybe my written manifestos are kind of prophetic. They are not so much me talking about what I’m doing in that moment, they’re me talking about what I’m going to be doing next. The act of writing as casting spells is well documented as a thing. When you’re speaking and when you’re putting words on paper— in the Bible God talks about the word and the power of the word and that you can manifest anything you want through your words.

I feel like writing, I feel like speaking, I feel like making words, making our art— that’s our magic as humans. Having an idea about something, whether it’s a work of art— making that thing so that it literally manifests before your eyes— those are forms of magic. Writing is a form of magic, speaking is a form of magic. During this whole conversation I’ve been talking about sort of reaching this level, this height— and when you reach that height you are more in tune with the ability to manifest. That’s what we all want. I mean we all want to make the world a better place, but we all want more for ourselves and for our communities. Being cognizant of these forms of magic helps us get to that place of making things better for ourselves and for our communities. So that’s a big part of it.

I’m trying to only put out in the world what I want to see exist. One time I thought it would be a really cool project to comb through the Bible and pull out everything that ever talks about the word and combine it all together. I don’t think it’s metaphorical when it happens that much, you know. Talking about the power of one’s words.

[Thinks for a second.]

I probably should still do that.

MG: What are the biggest things you have taken away from school?

MC: Carolina Aranibar-Fernandez’s whole class. Her projects were really good projects because they helped me be self-reflective and really think about where I saw the lack. And then what my place was in regards to that lack. But I also believe in the old adage that, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Not to take any credit away from Carolina, but I was also just in the right place and ready for that at that point.

Also, my professor Cara Benedetto was pretty pivotal too. I think that that’s important— to give credit where credit’s due. Cara— maybe unapologetic isn’t the right way to talk about her— but she seems to have decided how she wants to exist in the world and then just done that. And then she’s said “I’m going to do that” constantly and “I’m still going to achieve what I want and I’m still going to be where I want to be.” Honestly as a black girl with certain attributes that historically have isolated me from the community that I’m “supposed” to belong to I have not thought those things, you know, and that sort of gets back to me not feeling comfortable taking up space. I think I took Cara’s class every semester until I graduated. She has a power and a strength but really a forthrightness that I admire so much. She said something really good to me that I think about a lot— she said, “I’ve seen you be accidentally aggressive.” For me that was such an “aha” moment. Because when I let myself just be, and just do that, I am everything that I talk about wanting to be. You know what I mean? But sometimes being so critical all the time gets in the way of just being.

And then if I were to say one more thing I would definitely say the community I developed has been a major gift. I love this artist community so much— I really, really do. It is so nice to have you guys around. I grew up from 6th grade to 12th grade in a predominantly white, very homogeneous ‘one type of whiteness’ and it did inform the way that I went to VCU and the way that I thought about my peers. Y’all are all eclectic as fuck. But it was very slow for me to feel comfortable just being myself. At one point I used to be very wild and very talkative and I used to be like that all the time, but it wasn’t the right community and people didn’t respond to me in kind ways. But you guys do. And it was slow for me to be able to trust that.

There’s so much more I want to say about that but I don’t really have the words right now.

MG: It seems to me that you’ve been thinking a lot about community and building/maintaining community post-graduation. Can you talk about that?

MC: I think it’s really important for us to stay in communication with each other. I do believe in collective power, I believe in that and I don’t want to see us waste that. You know what I mean? When you are in an atmosphere of a group of people striving, that fuels you, that informs you. And if I was totally honest I would also say that— maybe this comes from me thinking I wear a superhero cape— you ever heard that metaphor in rap songs— I think a lot of my peers struggle with depression and anxiety and some of the things that I struggle with to a degree, but like, more intensely. And when you are in the atmosphere of other people striving, and thinking, and sharing, and giving love, that has to lessen those feelings, that has to be helpful. And I want that to happen, for all of us. Tribes start small. I think of us as a tribe.

MG: What’s coming up?

MC: So the next thing that I’m working on is showcasing this project called Origin of Descent, at Brown Studio, which is run by this artist, Ross Brown. He’s actually a VCU alumni who has been working in Richmond and New York for twenty or thirty years. It’s a show to exhibit one hundred 9” by 12” works. I am so excited about this project. I don’t know how it tumbled into what it did, but I think it’s a powerful project physically. It has been such a meditative process and such a learning process. It’s also a challenge to complete one hundred works in such a small amount of time. It’s a challenge for me as an artist and the way that I normally make work, which is me spending months and months and months on one painting. Here I’m not allowing myself to spend more than two hours on one painting. It is really freeing to see that I have the ability to make something that I consider to be quality work in an amount of time that I wouldn’t normally think I could make quality work. It’s also an initiative to fund Vermont Studio Center residency that I’ll be going to in March; my first residency. These are paintings, but I’m thinking that I might make prints as well. I make really big works that aren’t always accessible to most people, but I want to make them something that people feel like they can afford and own. It’s a time-based project; I’m going to push them out and get them in the world.

The show, Origin of Descent, will be held at Brown Studio, 1100 Hull Street, on Saturday, November 18th, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Origin of Descent will feature 100 new works. Proceeds from sales and donations will fund Mahari’s upcoming residency at Vermont Studio Center.

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