The Immigrant Artist Biennial: Abena Motaboli

Abena Motaboli, The Pieces that hang far up above – in you, in me, in I, in We, in Us, 2019 Plastic Tarp. Dimensions variable approximate 12ft x 12ft x 12ft. Photo courtesy the artist

The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB) is a volunteer, female-led, artist-run project. TIAB 2020 launched in March in New York City at Brooklyn Museum, and continued in September through December at EFA Project Space, Greenwood Cemetery, and virtually, presenting 60+ artists. This interview series features 10 participating artists.

Abena Motaboli is a Southern African born educator, visual artist, and writer based in Chicago. She grew up in Lesotho, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, before moving to the U.S where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Columbia College Chicago and at L’Institut Catholique de Paris in Paris, France. With a strong commitment to social justice work in the South and West sides of Chicago and being an immigrant, her artwork comments on displacement, immigration, the African diaspora, and the loss of the sense of home. In her intricate plastic installations and meditative line-work in her paintings, she uses ephemeral material such as plastic, tea, dirt, and coffee to comment on colonialism, past memories, and the culture of creating.

Abena has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibits such as SOFA Chicago, Bhavan Gallery based in London, Woman Made Gallery, and Aqua Art Miami to name a few, her work is also placed in private collections throughout the U.S. This spring, she has a few poems published with Northeastern Illinois University’s SEEDS Literary and Visual Arts Journal.

Do artists have political responsibilities at this moment, if so, what are they? 

Absolutely, artists have such an incredibly unique position in our current political climate whether that entails dissecting where we are as a society, commenting on aspects of culture, or creating healing spaces to share trauma, resources or communities. Part of the reason I create these plastic installations are to create healing spaces for the viewer to reflect, perhaps a reflection on where we are with climate change, or reflecting on our current times.

Reflect on an encounter of displacement, becoming, belonging, trauma, healing, or simply comic relief from your journey of immigration. 

My artistic process which changed drastically since moving to the U.S. Back home in Lesotho I was intrigued with artists like Fernand Léger exploring Tubism and Cubism in vivid, colorful large scale paintings. Growing up I would drink a lot of tea and so even in the studio in the U.S (back in 2014) I would drink my tea in the studio. I found myself wanting something that reminded me of home and I also could not find any hue in oil or acrylic paints with an intense vivid brown, so I decided to pour the tea on the canvas and see what happened and I loved the result. I was thinking a lot about Colonialism and the Western World influencing developing countries like my own where the culture of tea drinking, like a lot of other things, did not come from us but was something that was worked into our culture to become ours. I do not think I would be using tea, coffee, or materials of the earth if my family had not immigrated to the U.S, it really came from a place of wanting to connect back to home and of late an interest in ecological and sustainable art.

Abena Motaboli, The Pieces that hang far up above – in you, in me, in I, in We, in Us, 2019 Plastic Tarp. Dimensions variable approximate 12ft x 12f tx 12ft. Photo courtesy the artist

How has the turn toward the digital and virtual affected your artistic practice?

It’s been a really interesting journey to be on. The first two weeks of the quarantine I was anxious, I was in a panic, I could not make art and like a lot of other people in this country I was laid off my job wondering how we were going to survive. During this time I wrote a lot and really delved into my writing practice to get through. It also gave me the time to fully focus on how to start branding and marketing my art via social media. Surprisingly I have sold more work than I have all year, I think in part because a lot of people are stuck indoors and find themselves wanting to support local artists through the pandemic. I find myself wanting to work on collaborative projects as well and share resources with people in my communities. I have also been inspired by taking walks in nature throughout the pandemic, so I’ve been researching and writing about trees, plants and the things around us. I have also had the time to explore more themes in my tea and coffee work as well as dying tarp with natural material and thinking of ways to incorporate this in my installation work once things are a bit more normal.

Tell us about the work you are exhibiting in The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

The work I am exhibiting with the Immigrant Artist Biennial is a plastic tarp based installation titled The Pieces that hang far up above – in you, in me, in I, in We, in Us, these pieces are part of an ongoing site-specific series consisting of free flowing hanging tarp. I am interested in creating healing spaces amidst the chaos of our modern day worlds, thinking about climate change, as well as the idea of transient homes and what home means to an immigrant. The free flowing manner comments on the idea of shelters, with the holes in the tarp commenting on our collective trauma, and the trauma of being displaced. Yet there is comfort in the womb-like manner in which the material is hung. In specific installations I use balls of dirt and earth wrapped in cellophane commenting on our pasts, our ecological footprint, and our ancestors.

Abena Motaboli in the studio, photo courtesy Brandon Jones

Please share a piece of advice or a resource that may be useful to an immigrant artist. 

My biggest resource has been the community I develop around myself, I have made it a goal to support social justice efforts as a person of color living in the U.S, supporting mutual aid work, and networking at every opportunity I have. Learn how to engage with people and keep growing your communities through collaborative work, writing, making art together, or simply coming up with a community project, see how your work reflects in the context of a larger audience. I am never afraid to reach out to artists I am influenced by via instagram or social media and thinking about opportunities to collaborate if it aligns with your artistic practice.

The Immigrant Artist Biennial’s virtual exhibitions are open through December 18th 2020, visit them here and a list of their ongoing events here.

Macintosh HD:Users:annamikaela:Desktop:Jane Swavely, Artists on Coping:_Anna Mikaela Ekstrand photographed by Matthew Stewart copy.jpg
Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is a New York-based Swedish/Guyanese independent curator and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes, an online art publication focusing on interdisciplinary and non-hierarchical art criticism. Alongside an all-female volunteer team, she currently serves as an advisor and co-curator for the inaugural “The Immigrant Artist Biennial.”