Goshen Sculptor Mahaja Upcycles With Purpose
People ask me a lot of questions about the metalwork that goes into many of my sculptures. I think when people realize that I’m using recycled and discarded materials, they tend to look closer, and look at the piece differently.
For me, it’s very therapeutic to sculpt this way; there is satisfaction that comes from knowing I took discarded material and worked it into a final product that inspires and moves people to feel something. It’s like the piece of art gives that material a whole new life.
I came to Goshen from Nigeria in 2010 with a scholarship to study and play basketball at Goshen College, and I earned a Bachelors degree in art there. I was under the guidance of many fine teachers and instructors. John Mishler really had a big impact on me and my art journey and helped me to find my way.
I felt at first I would be a painter, but I realized in college there were a lot of painters and it felt like it could sometimes be difficult to stand out. So I started playing around with sculpture and it seemed to come very naturally to me. Since I was a kid I was making things out of wire, and I was excited about the possibilities once I started sculpting. Once I was all-in, it then became an interesting process; deciding I wanted to find my materials from scrapyards and upcycle it into something new, and beautiful.
I always wanted to be an artist. Maybe when I was a kid in Nigeria I didn’t know I’d end up as a sculptor in a place called Indiana, but I knew it was something I wanted to do. When I work as an artist I feel great joy, and I feel no pressure.
I miss Africa a lot, of course. My memories of that time and place are with me forever. I remember I used to fish a lot with my father, and it wasn’t really like the catch-and-release some people do here; it was serious business. In Nigeria we weren’t fishing for fun or to relax, we were fishing to feed people.
For me, I think a big part of the draw of Goshen is that I get a sense of community here that reminds me of how things were back in Africa when I was there.
As a full-time artist I travel and do a lot of shows and sometimes in this area I’m the only black person in the gallery, and so sometimes I feel like I’m in a place where I’m different. But Goshen has real home vibes for me. People are for each other, here, and help each other and care about each other. I live here with my family. I go to a church where I’m fully accepted. I am a father, an artist, and a life skills teacher for people with special needs—I have a full sense of belonging in Goshen, and that reminds me of home.
Finding commonalities between different people, looking for ways to unify—this has always been a theme in my work, going back to my senior show at Goshen College. I did a series of sculptures and paintings of indigenous people because I think art has the capacity to truly unify people. I like to tell a story with my art, or re-tell a story with my own spin. And everyone can relate to these stories, and that’s part of the beauty.
You have to remember that wherever you are, there’s someone somewhere—across the ocean—who is just like you. Maybe your lives and experiences are different, but the feelings and emotions are the same, and the stories have so much in common. I try to represent that with my work.