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INTERVIEW

mahari chabwera

may 7, 2018
richmond, virginia





Ava: Are you a cat or a dog?
Mahari: I probably would say a dog. I’ll stick with a dog. Yeah, I’m totally a dog.
Adele: We realized it’s a split, kind of, almost 50-50.
Mahari: I didn’t like cats my whole life but when I moved to Richmond, so many of my friends here are cat people. I feel like I’ve learned the personalities of cats and I hadn’t known that growing up. They’re very mysterious.
Ava: Yeah, dogs put it all on the table. Cats are like—I just came up with something I’ve never thought of before—cats are like emotionally unavailable fuckboys. They’ll drive you crazy!
Mahari: I feel like every now and then you meet a cat that’s like a dog.
Ava: Yeah, there are cat-dogs.
Mahari: We were in Puerto Rico around this time last year, Josh and I, and we met this cat, she was a porch kitty, and her name was—something with a K—but I renamed her Kovu instead, from Lion King. She was totally a dog-cat. She was the best. First cat I let like, sit on my face. Weird stuff.
Ava: Yeah. I feel like my relationship with my roommate’s cat is at the face-sitting level now. She’s great. She’s a little much though, sometimes. Suffocating.
Mahari: I like a lot of love. Like, animal love.
Adele: You would like my dog. The relationship she has with people she likes is definitely in a face-sitting zone.



Adele: Would you describe your studio practice as a party to us? Paint us a picture.
Mahari: There’s usually a lot of hip hop. A lot of J Cole or Kendrick. A bright day? That sounds so fucking corny, but that was one of the best parts about Vermont—the light in the studio was so good. So yeah, during the day, a lot of light. I had a small carpet that I took from where I was staying, and I put it in the corner of my studio at Vermont Studio Center and as Lola and Genevieve were falling in love at the residency they would hang out on the carpet. So yeah, maybe people like—
Ava: —falling in love?!
Mahari: —hanging out on the carpet. I don’t know. We had a lot of snacks. Just eating food. Listening to Kendrick Lamar. I like having people in the studio while I work, talking and doing their own thing. It feels like life is invigorating whatever it is I’m doing.



Adele: Do you ever notice, when you look at your paintings, influences from conversations you were having at particular times?
Mahari: When I finish a painting it totally feels like I didn’t do it. They feel really really removed from me. Like, if I’m looking at the painting, I could be looking at someone else’s painting.
Ava: Do you think that’s partially because when you’re working on it you’re so up close? But obviously you have to step away and come back, you don’t do it all in one sitting, so that doesn’t make sense. But yeah, I’ve had that experience of being so close up to something and working on little parts of it—
Mahari: —that when you see it all together you’re like, oh, I didn’t even see this until now. Maybe, yeah. Maybe something like that.
Adele: Or is it more of an emotional distance?
Mahari: I don’t know. Like, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve only realized this happens recently. Real disassociation from the work once it’s done. Which is also nice, because I know sometimes artists talk about not knowing when something’s done, and I feel like I always know. There’s a point where it’s like, you’re done! You’re just done.



Ava: Can you talk about what home means to you?
Mahari: Jeez. This is almost like a therapy session or something. I want to be honest but I feel like it’s going to be so fucking corny.
Ava: That’s ok. I mean, we buy into it.
Mahari: When I met Josh, Josh felt like home. And he’s felt like home ever since. That’s short and sweet.
Ava: How did you— [sigh] That’s dreamy. Y’all met at the end of high school? Or after high school?
Mahari: I had just graduated from high school and he was my sister’s lab partner, so they were the same age, and I swore that they had a thing, because there’s no way they didn’t, right? That they could go through four years of college with each other and not have a thing. But they both claim to not have had a thing. He was helping her move out of her house, and I was helping, and that’s how we met.
Ava: And it just—that was it?
Mahari: Yeah. I don’t know why I feel really emotional right now, but yeah—my mom got sick that summer, too, and so our relationship really changed. That goes back to the feeling that I’ve never been alone, you know, because I was living at my mom’s house, and from there, the next breath was like, this person who, you know, I’m spending the rest of my life with. I guess I try not to think about that part too much, because I think that that part can almost feel like—did I ever get to me before tying myself to another person, or being raised by people who are trying to construct a certain me? But I guess I just like to think that I was always really strong-willed and that the me has always been there, and always will be there, and didn’t get eclipsed by this other person.
Ava: I also feel like you know you’ve found a good partner when you feel like you have room to grow into yourself without any manipulation—at whatever level—from the partner. I feel like it’s very possible to totally be able to grow into yourself, into your full abilities and everything else, while still being with someone.
Adele: Yeah, and isn’t home a place where you should feel yourself?
Mahari: Yeah. Yeah, he’s a good dude.
Ava: I’m glad you guys found each other.
Adele: I’m glad your sister moved.



Adele: Well, it’s interesting that you should name your partner as home, because our next question is, what is your definition of romance?
Mahari: Oh man.
Ava: That doesn’t even have to relate to partnered romance or romance romance, but like, romance in a broader sense.
Mahari: Ok. In a broader sense. First, I thought of food.
Adele: Yesss!
Ava: No one’s answered that before, that’s great.
Adele: That’s so true!
Mahari: Yeah, because romance is a happy place. And I think food is my happy place.
Ava: And the act of cooking—
Mahari: I don’t like cooking.
Ava: Not a cook? Chef?
Mahari: Do you like it?
Ava: Most of the time. I’m single, and I’ve been feeling good about being single for the most part, but there are nights when I’m like, damn, I just want someone to cook for me and take care of me. And that would be nice. I don’t ever cook anything very complicated for myself.
Adele: Yeah. I also love cooking for someone else, too. I’m not a very romantic cook for myself. Usually it’s like—cold burrito. Cold burrito lunch. That was today.
Ava: What kind of food is the most comforting?
Mahari: My favorite was spaghetti with meat sauce or Italian sausage and all the vegetables. But I stopped eating meat a year ago and now I just do it with the vegetables. You know, I try to pretend it’s as good, but I don’t think it’s the same. I also have a lot of allergies, so growing up I couldn’t do, like, cakes or anything with egg, so my grandma would always make me rice krispy treats for special occasions. That’s definitely a happy place food.
Ava: I love rice krispy treats, actually.
Mahari: Yeah. And they take like, five minutes to make.
Ava: Spaghetti and rice krispy treats. Those are both good. I guess I’m really hungry right now, so it all sounds good.



Mahari: I picked up a really good vegetarian chili recipe when I was in Vermont, too, which I made yesterday. It was really good.
Ava: Good to gather soup recipes. I do really love making soups, especially in the winter.
Mahari: It’s a lazy food, too. You just stuff everything in and it does it’s own thing. What’s your favorite?
Adele: Hmm, comfort food? I would say… right now… like, mac and cheese.
Ava: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too.
Mahari: Do you bake it so it’s really crunchy?
Adele: Oh yeah, with bread crumbs on top. That is so good. Or like, potato salad. Potato salad can be pretty tasty. Something that’s kind of gross, but delicious.
Ava: I thought first of mac and cheese, too, and then I thought of Ethiopian food, which I don’t eat very often. It’s kind of a treat, but I always find that comforting. So many tasty vegetarian dishes and I love the injera. I love everything about it. So satisfying.
Mahari: I should eat more vegetables.
Adele: Yeah. Rice can be a delicious comfort food, in a weird stupid way. I made bread last weekend and that was pretty delicious and awesome.
Mahari: How do you make bread? Or like, what are the ingredients that you add to yeast to make it actually tasty?
Adele: It depends. There are so many types of bread. You can make bread with just yeast, water, flour, and salt, which is what I used. But, it took three days to make it. There was a lot of fermenting time which gave it flavor that usually comes from olive oil or an added fat like butter. It was sitting wet on the counter overnight, for almost a day, and then there was this stretching process that was really ridiculously elaborate. Then I chilled it in the fridge for like, thirty hours and that also helped ferment it and develop a particular taste. If you bake it in the oven with a pan of water, which adds humidity to the oven, it develops a crisp crust but it’s still moist on the inside. That’s my favorite part, when you have a crunchy, like, nearly burnt, deeply toasted crust and then a really soft squishy moist inside. That’s the best. The best bread. It was really good with just olive oil and salt. It’s pretty easy to make unless you’re trying to go ham and then it might require like, being home and kneading it every thirty minutes, but you can make breads that require minimal attention, that just kind of ferment and rise on their own. It’s amazing.
Ava: That was a great tangent.
Adele: Yeah, romancing the bread. Romance the loaf.



Ava: Can you talk about your experience at Vermont Studio Center? What were you working on, what were you thinking about, what were you trying to achieve?
Mahari: I went with a lot of books from the library about Isis, actually, because I was thinking about her as this archetypal mother goddess figure but also as a kind of starting point for our Christian idea of Mary. Then it was a shift to all of these other ideas of goddesses. There’s this central thing that I feel like I’ve been stuck on and trying to think about, which is basically that in mythology, women were cast into one or two roles that we’re still sort of cast into now, and I’m trying to imagine beyond those roles that are very much parts of womanhood. I’m trying to envision ways of existing, or the potential for this existence, and also this closeness to divinity that was intrinsic to women that was erased. Maybe more of a closeness than between man and god or man and divinity.
Ava: So had you been doing a lot of research before you left, or were you continuing research?
Mahari: A little bit. When I was at VCU I was much more into the Yoruba pantheon, which mostly comes from Nigeria, with a focus on goddesses and Orishas and these different ideas of womanhood. I don’t know, I feel like I’m still trying to make all the connections between the things I’m thinking about and why I’m even thinking about them in the way that I’m thinking about them, and also if I even believe all the things I’m researching. I have this one book that I got while I was in Vermont called Women’s Spirituality that goes through all of these different archetypes and all of this erasure and all of this potential and I guess this movement that’s supposed to be happening right now, of women’s spirituality, that I’m not seeing, like, outside of this book. I feel like there’s a lot of conflicting information about this idea of god and our relationship to it and it’s hard sometimes to get to a place where I feel firm and like, yeah, this is the thing, this is a good way for me to think about it and then live my life according to this thing. I think that that’s what I’m trying to get at. Maybe there was more of a synthesis in Vermont, between all these different things, which I think is a good place for me to keep going towards.



Adele: Were there any particular experiences that helped you synthesize—or like, moments or highlights that really became turning points or tipping points in your research or development of your ideas?
Mahari: Sometimes I feel like I’ve had the opposite of that. In 2015 I tripped acid for the second time and I ended up being hospitalized for ten days because I completely lost touch with myself, in that I was speaking and I thought that I was my mom and I was hearing my mom’s voice and I was seeing things. I feel like we exist in a world of duality—there’s good and bad, there’s black and white, there’s man and woman—and it felt like I was experiencing a constant cycling between those things but I had no grasp on myself. Sometimes when I smoke weed I feel like I go back, like, I mini-trip again. When I tripped I felt like a veil was pulled back and that happens again sometimes when I smoke and it’s just really confusing, because I feel like I see something that I’m supposed to be getting or understanding, but I’m not getting it or understanding it. I actually did read something in that book, Women’s Spirituality, which I think is really fucking good. It’s this line: “we have to imagine female images of god to get our balance back from thousands of years of patriarchy.” I feel like that’s maybe a bit closer to where we should be as people, like—rather than existing on one side of the spectrum, finding the opposite side of that and existing there for a little bit to try to get closer to the center.
Ava: This is a side note, but that sounds really stressful to be hospitalized, for that trip to go in that direction. I know that’s not like, the main topic, but—
Mahari: It was actually kind of crazy, because there were attendants in the psych ward and one of them was this guy, and I saw him recently at the gas station before I went to Arizona. His face is like, burned in my brain, but I couldn’t remember why, so I pulled up and I was like, hey, how do I know you? And he was like, Saint Mary’s, and then I was like, oh FUCK, and I was really embarrassed. He looked at me and he was like—not in a weird way, but he was like, you look good. I was like, yeah, I’m good. But I remember asking people in the psych ward like, what’s going on? Why am I here? And no one would sit down and say hey, you had a bad acid trip, you’re here because this thing happened. I mean, that’s our health system. I remember he specifically would just look at me and not engage.
Adele: Oh, god. That sounds like a nightmare.
Mahari: Yeah. I wish I’d written about it more after it happened, you know?
Ava: I do love the idea of imagining female gods, or goddesses. Do you differentiate between female god and goddess?
Mahari: I don’t want to. In the stuff that I read there’s a differentiation between god and goddess, but I think that feeds into the whole thing that we’re supposed to be getting away from, like, trying to gender something that’s maybe beyond our ability to conceptualize. But then I think to myself, like, ok, you’re painting a bunch of women and you’re thinking about them as gods or deities and you’re trying to conceptualize them in a physical way that boxes them in and engenders and racializes them. But—I don’t know. I’ll figure that part out later.
Ava: Is the work you’ve been making recently based on pre-existing myths or personal mythology?
Mahari: I think a bit of both. The one I finished in Vermont Studio, that one is based off of these two sisters called the Djanggawul sisters. They are creators of life in Australia. They have a brother, but the sisters are the ones doing most of the creating. There’s a story about them breaking off pieces of their vulva to create the religious touchstones for their people. Then, their brother and the other men that they created steal the touchstones and do this ritualistic dance and then become the carriers of the power, the ability to create, that they stole from the women.
Adele: Original theft—
Mahari: —which I feel is a trend with women and origin stories in mythology. I know this woman who is a family friend, she was talking to me a while back, maybe a couple weeks ago, and she was telling me something about the Mayan calendar. What was supposed to be the end of the world, was it 2014? 2015? Something like that. She said—and I’ve not heard or read anything else about this—that year is actually the point at which we shift from this man-ruled spirituality or this man-ruled world into a woman-ruled era across the world. Just sort of a shift back away from patriarchy.
Ava: It’s a beautiful idea! Maybe it’s the kind of thing where we have to go backwards before we can go forwards, which is what it feels like is happening, sometimes.
Mahari: I just wonder if other women feel like that, if we feel maybe more empowered or like there’s some kind of shift. Or is that just a thing with generations, because I feel like that’s happened before, or is it something that’s actually like—
Ava: Yeah, that’s kind of hard to say. I kind of sense a shift, but my world is so small and it’s hard to get a sense of the greater earth. In my small world it feels like, yeah, there’s a shift, and I see all these women and I feel like there are all these strides being made. But like, that’s my small world.
Adele: Right. My community is very particularly women, and women who are self-determining and self-actualizing as they grow up and grow older and supporting each other in a beautiful, almost familial way. But I also realize that’s my particular experience and I’ve been cultivating that for a while. I went to an all-women’s college for undergrad and ever since I was 18 all of my close friends have been women who are feminist thinkers and generally—especially recently—I find that my closest closest friends are actually single women. But maybe that’s because it’s most relatable, you know, in day-to-day life experience.
Ava: And the Richmond dating scene leaves much to be desired.
Adele: Right. But I don’t know. When you look at it factually, there’s still wage discrepancy, people in positions of power are still men—
Ava: 53% of white women voted for Trump, so…
Mahari: Did you guys see Michelle Wolf’s—?
Ava: That was… yeah, it was great. It was amazing. We need more of that. I also just like—how does someone like that even get invited to give that speech?
Mahari: I remember she said something like, “you guys didn’t do enough research!”
Ava: I’m glad that it happened.



Adele: What artists are you looking at right now?
Mahari: Chris Ofili. Mostly just him right now, because he does this wild thing with his colors that’s like—that’s what I wanna do. Also, I saw this show that maybe opened somewhere in New York last year where he painted a watercolor and had three or five professional weavers weave this tapestry to look like his watercolor, and it was in a room full of these wall paintings. It was just the way he completely took over that space and turned it into something otherworldly. That’s where I’d like to go with my stuff. I was having this thought about my work yesterday, comparing the color to Chris Ofili and the composition to Kerry James Marshall, and there was one other person that I can’t remember now. It’s similar to the way I synthesize mythologies in my work. I mean, I think we all do that, we just pick the best parts of people we like and we try to slap it together.
Ava: Yeah. I was going to ask about working on unstretched canvas, which is a Kerry James Marshall move. What’s your decision behind it?
Mahari: Ease, really.
Ava: Yeah, I was gonna say, it is practical, especially with the scale you’re working with.



Ava: Can you talk about your writing?
Mahari: I was actually talking to someone else about this yesterday. I keep a journal. Once in a class we were prompted to make manifestos and I’ve kept that up and I try to do one every year. They basically are just a combination of writings or thought in the journal all put together in a more cohesive way. I think also that I’m a better me in my writing. Like, I go back and read stuff and I’m like, you’re with it, you’re confident, you’re making claims, you know? You’re not insecure, so be that person all the time!
Ava: I can catch myself being down on myself in my journaling, but I also use it as a way to pep talk myself. Like maybe I’ll write out a couple negative sentences and then I’m like alright, look at what you just wrote! You don’t need to do that. So you have the journaling and then is there poetry as well?
Mahari: A little bit, but I don’t know.
Ava: I guess I’m thinking of your Instagram captions, which might just be like, stream of consciousness or—
Mahari: Yeah, I think the last thing that I posted was “my pussy sweats first” and that was definitely something I would consider poetry, but I don’t know if any of the stuff before that counts. Yeah, but I’d like to do more of that.



Ava: What is your relationship to Instagram?
Mahari: I think when I can be on it and post on it and use it as a way of journaling, then it’s really good, but it starts to get toxic when I’m comparing my successes to other people, or the lives of other people. That’s when I have to take space from it. I think we’re all just on there fronting! Ok, maybe not fronting, but trying to be the best versions of ourselves. It’s not real, it’s only the best parts, and that’s not all of it.
Ava: I definitely catch myself lately not posting a lot and only posting very specific, selected things. But that’s also because half my followers are like, random brands or boutiques. It’s like, what? None of this is even relevant.
Adele: Sometimes it feels dangerous to put content online, too, when you know that your followers are like, weird lifestyle accounts.
Mahari: A lot of my mom’s friends have started following me, and my mom follows me. I feel like one of the last conversations we had, she was very pointedly not talking about that pussy poem, but she wanted to. I feel like you can’t be vulnerable because you know these people are watching that can’t really see you in the way that maybe you want to be seen.
Adele: And that gets back to the whole voyeuristic aspect of Instagram, where you can be vulnerable but it doesn’t feel like vulnerability because you’re not witnessing what the other party is experiencing of your vulnerability.
Mahari: But then sometimes I also wonder, when we see other people’s feeds, we look and it sort of resonates for a moment but then we move on. It’s so brief. It’s like, sometimes we think that other people are resting with our content, like me fearing that my mom’s family friends are really stuck on something. But it’s probably [snaps fingers] and they’re on to something else!
Ava: The scroll.
Adele: Or maybe they’re appreciating it. You just never know. Which I guess could be categorized as some sort of vulnerability, like just giving it away without any feedback.
Mahari: Yeah. It can be fun though.
Adele: This past year I’ve been obsessed with time and time management, you know, I have like, a thousand jobs, and I have a lot of things I wanna do, so I’ve been questioning the value of my time spent on Instagram. That has taken me away from using the platform.
Mahari: Doesn’t it feel like a responsibility though, as artists, almost? Do you guys feel like that?
Ava: To post?
Mahari: Yeah, getting your work out there.
Ava: Yeah. I think another issue I have is that I’m at the point where I follow so, so many artists and accounts, like probably almost 3000 at this point? Which means that I am looking at a lot of art and seeing a lot of art. You know, I’ll see a painting in my feed and stop at it and maybe be like, oh wow, I love this, and save it or follow the artist, but it’s like, I don’t remember the artist’s name, maybe I’ll remember their handle if I scroll past it enough times. I don’t like that my level of engagement becomes that shallow with other artists’ work. On the flipside, I do think it’s important for artists to be on Instagram, sharing work. It is a really valuable community.
Mahari: I did learn recently that there’s a way to deactivate your account. Cheyenne [Julien] does that a lot. Have you heard about that? When people search you, they won’t be able to find you. It doesn’t delete the account, it just sort of puts it on hold, so whenever you download the app back again and enter your account information it’ll open up all your images again but it’s like, you know, it takes you off for however long you want to be off.



Adele: What are you most excited about? It can be anything, you know, anything in your work or that you’ve read or witnessed—
Ava: —anything you have coming up—
Adele: —anything you’re listening to—
Mahari: This is gonna sound weird but Josh is finishing up his physics degree, so hopefully he’ll be done by next spring and then he’ll get a job that pays money and then I can do this and not have to worry about other shit.
Ava: Yeah! That is exciting!
Mahari: Yeah, I’ll just hold it together until then.
Ava: Just keep making the work.
Adele: Keep eating spaghetti. But yeah, thank you so much for talking to us and sharing and making images of the world you want to see. That is awesome.