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Studio Visit with Mahari Chabwera

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BmoreArt’s Picks: May 21-27

“I don’t know how impactful the things I make are for others, but they’re very impactful for me,” acknowledges painter, Mahari Chabwera. The 29-year-old artist describes how she’s more compelled by the creative process than the finished results. “People see [my paintings] as things with a certain amount of artfulness, and then that moment is over; but for me, the process is never a moment.” 

For Chabwera, painting is an opportunity to turn inwards and reflect on the mind, body, and self. She then gradually externalizes those reflections through a singular piece or series. Yet when Chabwera paints, she’s not focused on the final product but rather the action of painting. As a result, her works feel as if they’re in a constant state of transformation, materializing as enduring spectacles without clear beginnings or endings. 

Movement and narrative were at the heart of Chabwera’s most recent solo exhibition, Etheric Bodies: Portraits of the Sacred Self, curated by Angela N. Carroll at NoMüNoMü gallery (which ended May 16th). In addition to six large-scale Tapestry paintings, themselves packed with visual dynamism, the show included workshops and events centered around moving the body. For the duration of the exhibition, NoMüNoMü became a venue for yoga sessions, communal concerts, dancing, and guided meditations. 

These activities, Chabwera says, collectively function as the seventh painting she’d intended to make as part of the Tapestry series. The artist considers the works portraits or “embodiments” of the seven Hindu chakras (energy centers believed to be present within each human’s nonphysical or etheric body): “If I were to sit down and illustrate what the chakras look like to me, that’s what the paintings represent.” 

 

Installation of view of Mahari Chabwera's Etheric Bodies: Portraits of the Sacred Self at NoMüNoMü. Photo by Vivian Doering.

As Chabwera learned more about Hinduism and the body, she became curious about ways of balancing energies within the self, methods that typically involve visualization, movement, and sound. “It [was] important,” she elaborates, “to have these strategies and techniques as present in the show as the [physical] artworks.” Though in retrospect Chabwera speaks with clarity about her intentions for Etheric Bodies, the exhibition was by no means a quick project. “It’s been a very, very long process,” she reflects, one that took four years to solidify. 

Etheric Bodies echoes Chabwera’s collaborative spirit in that its development was, directly and indirectly, nourished and informed by creatives the artist has met and/or looked up to since she was in middle school. One of those visionaries, Asa Jackson (a friend and prior classmate), Chabwera calls her “north star.” Jackson, an artist and the director of the artist-run workspace, Contemporary Arts Network (CAN), gave Chabwera both her first gallery show, as well as access to the studio space where, in 2020, she conceived and began producing Etheric Bodies.

Whether in exhibition at NoMüNoMü, or her creative process generally, Chabwera treats art as a means of embracing the “every day.” The painter invigorates the ordinary with cascading colors, thick layers of media, and bold brush strokes. Her organic, nature-inspired forms emit an irresistible, primal hum. These saturated, occasionally glittery compositions not only provide windows into the artist’s mind, but also act as mirrors onto the self. 

Chabwera’s paintings inundate viewers with imagery that’s at once familiar and fantastical, prompting a gentle elevation of both mind and body. When asked how she would describe her art more broadly, Chabwera laughs, “Oprah says it well: ‘We’re not human beings having a spiritual experience, we’re spiritual beings having a human experience,’ and I don’t want to forget that.” 

Photo by Vivian Doering.
Photo by Vivian Doering.
Installation of view of Mahari Chabwera's Etheric Bodies: Portraits of the Sacred Self at NoMüNoMü. Photo by Vivian Doering.
My spiritual practice is my artistic practice and vice versa.
Mahari Chabwera

 

SUBJECT: Mahari Chabwera, 29
PLACE: East Baltimore, Coldstream Homestead Montebello
WEBSITE: www.maharichabwera.com 
INSTAGRAM: @maharichabwera

What do you believe is art’s role and function in local and global communities?

Art functions as a culture capsule.                   

If you could build your own museum, what would you create?

I’d create a museum near water. It would be constructed from materials that honor the area and employ as much of the local community as possible. It’d probably be in Virginia since that’s where I’m from. It would include walking trails, multiple structures, gardens and verandas situated in an expansive, compound-like configuration.

My museum would be multi-use, holding space for workshops, performances, conversations, exhibitions, and other rotating activations like yoga classes, garden to table cooking classes, and wine tastings. There would be a vineyard on my compound.

We would invite master artists and craftspeople to teach free classes and trainings. All the workshops would be free and open to the public. The whole institution would be fully funded from some collaborative entity that just wanted to see the space thrive. Visitors would be able to stay overnight for short to extended periods of time, and there would be an onsite artist-residency, library, several gardens, and a vast archive of artwork that was well-cared for and conserved. 

Where do you go when you need to clear your head? When you lived in Baltimore, did you have a favorite place/spot to escape to?

Now that I’m living in Newport News again my spots are Newport New Park and Buckroe Beach. NN Park is where I actually took this interview. When I lived in Baltimore I would walk to Lake Montebello, and through the neighborhoods by the lake. 

What motivates you while you’re working in your studio? Do you listen to anything while painting?

Music and coffee motivate me in the studio. So do early sunny mornings. I listen to a lot of music while I paint, mostly things I can sing to. Recently I started listening to more music that makes me feel like dancing! Which is tricky to do while painting, but keeps me energized.

 

Photo by Vivian Doering.
It’s Flow, it’s Joy, it’s Pleasure. It’s Presence.
Mahari Chabwera

What’s your go-to comfort food?

Something with red sauce. Pizza, pasta, or a really good tomato basil soup. Breaded things are also really comforting. Recently I’ve been having an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel and a gigantic Cinnabon cinnamon roll at least once a week—usually on the weekends. I love a good sweet treat!

Your solo show at NoMüNoMü is inspired by the Hindu system of the seven chakras, or energy centers, of the human body. What role does spirituality, broadly, play in your artistic practice?

Broadly my spiritual practice is my artistic practice and vice versa. When I’m in consort with creative energy I’m in consort with The Creator of my understanding. It’s a pretty cool thing. It’s Flow, it’s Joy, it’s Pleasure. It’s Presence. It doesn’t ALWAYS feel like this in the studio. But during the times it does, that’s when I really know I’m in the right place at the right time and serving the energy of my soul. Which is what my spiritual practice is—a striving to serve the energy of my soul.

What’s your favorite color? Why?

I have a lot of favorite colors! I like peach and orange. And green and brownearthy colors and lively colors. I also love blue. Deep blues or a teal kind of Caribbean blue.

How would you describe your painting process? Is it typically a quick or slow act for you?

I can get the general idea for a composition out pretty quickly. I can decide on the color scheme and the concept or feelings I want to evoke easily. It’s the execution! The use of other materials, that’s what takes the longest. With each piece I’m striving to use all the skills I have to make the best object I can. That was my process for making Etheric Bodies, and that’s what took me so long.

I looked at those paintings for years knowing they weren’t quite there and feeling, sometimes, like I didn’t have in that moment what I needed to get them there. The things that were missing fluctuated between time, focus, understanding, dedication, space, to a particular skill set. Even now I feel like there’s more I could have given them. That’s my perfectionist mindset.

I’m a follower of author and spiritual technician Iyanla Vanzant, and she says nothing is ever perfect, permanent, or personal. I’m a work in progress.

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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