Abena Motaboli’s work is earthy and textural, as she magically transfers the lifeblood and energy of nature into her artwork. Growing up in Lesotho, Africa, Motaboli was exposed to the natural beauty of this region and has stayed connected to nature ever since. Her passion and dedication for the natural world around us shows through in her warm, earth-toned abstractions and the materials she uses to create them, such as twigs and leaves. Deeply inspired by her early memories in southern Africa, she infuses materials in her work that directly references these formative experiences, such as tea. Curently based in Chicago, the artist’s work takes shape not only as gorgeous works on paper, but also complex and engaging installation work. With a focus on ecology and informed by her unique immigration experience, Motaboli’s work points to important issues like a call to arms, bringing social and environmental justice to the forefront.
Join me in conversation as Abena Motaboli shares about her sustainable art practice, the interconnectedness of all living things, and her practices as an artist, poet, and teacher.
Let’s begin with your journey getting to where you are now. What brought you to Chicago? Did you grow up in a creative environment?
I grew up in a really beautiful country called Lesotho, which is totally landlocked by South Africa. It is around 11,000 ft. above sea level so I had an upbringing where I felt completely connected to the mountains and my surrounding natural environment. I moved to the U.S with my family back in 2012 to a small suburb and I moved to Chicago in 2014 to complete my Bachelors of Fine Arts at Columbia College Chicago. Since then, I’ve been working as an art facilitator with the Chicago Park District, Marwen Arts, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, community gardens, and other local organizations with a strong commitment to the South and West sides of Chicago. My art curriculum focuses on social and ecological justice.
My upbringing was creative and academic. My mom, who is Ghanaian, taught home economics and in her free time was a tailor and had a store sewing clothes--I was always surrounded by fabric and by something being made. My dad taught Theory of Knowledge, Geography and History, so I had really engaging things to make, paint, and think about. My first art piece was put into a sixth grade exhibition when I was in 2nd grade and I knew from then on that I wanted to be an artist. My parents encouraged my sister and I by putting us in extra art classes over the weekends and I loved it. I loved making things, writing, and painting. I still have this childlike joy whenever I am in the studio.
I love your use of non-conventional materials in your work. Can you tell me about the materials in your work and why you have chosen them to create your beautiful abstractions?
Tea is central to my upbringing; when I moved to the U.S in 2012, I found myself wanting something that reminded me of home and all I could think about were the number of conversations we would have with friends, families, and visitors over tea back in Lesotho. Anytime someone visited, my mom would pull out our best tea sets and we would share stories over tea. I am also obsessed with everything about tea, so as I was in the studio one day, I just spilled a cup of tea on my canvas; I loved the result (I also could not find any hue in oil or acrylic paints with an intense vivid brown, and I was uninterested in using material that are toxic).
Conceptually, I was thinking too 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 (from the British through India and China), so I could almost trace the history of colonialism by following the route of the tea leaves.
Other materials I use include coffee, dirt, twigs, leaves, and whatever I can forage or find that is preferably sustainable. I love the fluidity of ephemeral material like tea, it's a lot like life: a constant pull and push, an ebb and flow, an interaction, always moving things around and responding to the original plan.
I understand you have participated in an artist residency or two recently. What was your experience like?
I recently had a chance to participate in a residency at a place called Respite in the Round, which is accessible to POC through a solidarity scale. Part of the land is home to Handèwa Farms, farmed by an indigenous, woman-led collective with members with indigenous ancestry, including Occaneechi-Saponi, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Lakota. At Handewa Farms, we learned how to harvest hemp and we did some mutual aid work in Durham, North Carolina. Here, I met some really incredible, inspiring people doing social justice work on the ground and the experience was invaluable.
Over the course of two weeks I did a lot of writing, journaling, painting, and movement work. I left three pieces of tarp in the creek in an alluvial forest and used material off of the land including pokeweed berries, clay, dirt, tea, ink, and coffee to paint these tarps. I would return to the creek each day to interact and paint these tarps. The results were three stained tarps that I hung at different locations on the land, and a series of short performances including movement work.
I also had the chance to co-curate and develop small is all, a program I co-facilitated with two other team members through the Chicago Park District, centered on emergent strategies, the work of adrienne maree brown and Robin Wall Kimmerer; an apprenticeship for youth to slow down, zoom in, and learn about a small creatures and nature elements.
Can you tell me a bit about your connection to nature, your interest in ecology, and how it affects your art practice?
My upbringing in Lesotho was very nature centric. I think a lot about the belief that countries in Africa are not as developed as the Western world, but when I think about how connected everyone is to nature where I grew up it makes me think that, in terms of sustainability and being in tune with the natural environment, they are in a place that the Western world is trying so hard to get to.
I remember an installation I did back at Columbia College Chicago when I first moved to Chicago, and as I was grabbing dirt from Grant Park, a security guard came to me and told me that I could be arrested for taking dirt off of government property. I was stunned. Where I grew up in Africa, dirt is free and in abundance! However, this has me constantly thinking about who has access to nature, national parks, or even dirt in the U.S--especially in a city.
I connect a lot of my art practice back to my connection with nature. I’ve been working with flowers of late and (botanically) dyeing fabric with flowers. I was born in a small town in South Africa called Bloemfontein, which is also known as the city of roses; I keep stumbling on beautiful relationships between the plants and myself as I spend hours on end learning and listening deeply to the plants I work with. I’ve also been thinking a lot about being an immigrant and how rooted I am by simply having the ground and earth beneath my feet wherever I go.
One of my current favorite books is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who says “The land knows you even when you are lost.” She goes in depth explaining how we should live in gratitude and reciprocity with the earth, which inspires me to try and create work sustainably, leaving less, not more.
Another incredible read I am reading right now is Undrowned Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, which is a work of poetry, biology, and meditations on the connections between humans and marine mammals. I am very inspired by interconnectedness and thinking about this in terms of immigration, which I explore in my writing and sound work.
What aspect, experience, or event in your life has impacted you as a person the most? What has impacted you the most as an artist?
My upbringing is central to everything that I do. In Southern Africa, we have a word “Ubuntu,” which implies togetherness or the interconnectedness between us all. I grew up in a country that, despite all of its challenges, was steeped in joy and a love of community and nature. Because of this, I really try to share my authentic joyful self and pass on my love of tea, plants, and nature.
Moving to the U.S has also been a whirlwind. I have had so many opportunities and experiences in this country that I never would have had otherwise, and I am eternally grateful. I don’t think I would be using tea or coffee or ephemeral material if my family and I hadn’t moved to the U.S--it really came out of me desperately trying to find a way to connect back to my home.
I love that you create visual art, you teach art, and you write poetry as well. So many talents! How do you balance these different creative outlets? What advice would you give other artists that feel stuck in one medium and/or one mode of creating and want to branch out?
Making art is like breath to me. I have so much I want to share and so much I want to do, as I feel naturally wired through creating. However, I do what I can feasibly do and sometimes that means doing half of a project before a work Zoom call and finishing it after, waking up early, using every free moment to create, knowing when to say no to a project or an invitation, creating timelines for myself, and, of course, having time to have a self care bath. I am really grounded around water, so I take walks to the lake often. For the past few months I’ve been starting my days with a half hour to an hour of yoga followed by a workout and meditating. I drink a lot of tea too, which keeps me going. Although, it has been challenging to realize the fine line between doing too much versus moving at my own pace, which is full of creating.
My advice? Sometimes you just have to jump. Try something new. Join a class that you would never do; before the pandemic I did an improv class in Spanish for beginners. It felt amazing to do something so different to what I usually do. I just took an online class in botanical dyeing and I am learning more about plants and myself than I thought I would. Finally, find people you are inspired by and reach out to them. I am never afraid to send someone I am inspired by a message asking for advice or how they got to where they are or just building a new relationship.
How do you stay connected to your art community and support system during Covid-19?
Staying connected to my communities has kept me going through the pandemic. The first few weeks of Covid were challenging and it’s been up and down like the water, but overall good. I have been really grateful to have the space and time to just focus on my art. Early on, I came up with a writing project with a group of friends processing experiences during Covid-19. I am currently figuring out what form I would like to share this in. I was also recently a part of The Immigrant Artist Biennial, which went virtual.
I recently did a talk on my medium as a way to sustainably create for the CAA conference 2021, which was a great way to meet different people interested in sustainable art making. I also love to share in abundance. My social media has been a great outlet for me in terms of sharing joy, collaborating with different people, and selling artwork. I was also part of the Visual Artist stimulus fund, a catalog of art creatives organized by Andy Bellomo & Michelle Ruiz
What is next for you? Are you currently working on anything? How can our readers engage with your work?
I have a lot of exciting projects coming up. I am working on an intimate series of tea paintings available on my Etsy account called JoyousByAbenaart, which is an extension of my art practice Abenaart. I will also be releasing some botanical-dyed scarves, totes, merchandise, etc. via this platform later in the spring.
I’ve been dabbling with the digital world and doing commissioned portraits, and am always taking in commission requests.
I just had the chance to facilitate a Nature Journaling class with the Garfield Park Alliance and published a book with a few of the artworks we created, creative writing pieces, and pieces about gratitude to indigenous plants. Although publication is not for sale, a longer project I am working on is a book about deeply listening to the plants, which will be for sale hopefully later this year. I have sound projects in the works and I am always applying for exhibitions that feel aligned with my art practice.
I have just started a more formal page on my website where organizations and companies can book a sustainable art making workshop using tea experience with their team for team bonding, mental health, or self care. More at Workshop Offerings | abenaart.