I walked into the Baltimore-based artist Mequitta Ahuja’s home studio on a chilly March morning with low clouds and a slight drizzle slowing the pace of an already dreary weekend. Studio visits can depend as much on the weather as your mood, and rainy days can completely flatten the dynamic.
I had spent the weekend mourning Okwui Enwezor’s stunning death. Rereading Enwezor, one of our most significant contemporary art curators who passed away March 15, I couldn’t keep his powerful words and radical work out of my mind. Enwezor’s demand that art and artists marginalized by colonialism be brought to the center of the art world’s concerns reconfigured the borders of contemporary art and remains his legacy’s deepest note.
As soon as Ahuja and her smile met me at her door, my greyed mood transformed as I walked into a space brimming with a quiet, generous abundance. A front-of-house conservatory full of beautiful indoor plants competed for sunlight with Ahuja’s two mischievous cats, who slinked and stalled across the hardwood floors, while the faint echoes of a cooing newborn trickled lightly from the second story. Still, I was struck by how resonant Enwezor’s words felt as I meandered through Ahuja’s home and into her studio, her large painted canvases propped in an asymmetrical arrangement just off the living room and perhaps the most noticeable sign of how art and life are in constant communion in her work.
As I scanned Ahuja’s work—known for powerful investigations of the female body as a site of raced, classed, gendered, and historically fraught contexts—Enwezor’s curatorial and pedogogical ethics came alive. As an artist of South Indian and African-American descent, Ahuja mobilizes her own subjectivity through figurative paintings that unpack the hegemonic Eurocentric narratives of art history and the various biases that undergird art historical value. Rendered on a monumental history painting-size scale, Ahuja does not gloss over the fact that the stories and perspectives of black and brown bodies have been disavowed from the center of traditional Western visual culture, but chooses instead to explode the mannerisms and conventions of art history by inserting and personalizing bodies of color into her works. Ahuja’s works make visible the ways in which bodies of color, their histories, and indigenous visual cultures, have been salaciously appropriated by Western artists—compulsively devoured as a gateway to an ostensible “true and authentic” registration of form and content that belies so much of the colonialist impulse present in the history of the West. Ahuja’s work answers the call for a new critical appraisal that draws those “other cultures” near.
“Xpect,” 2018, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches
“Le Damn Revisited,” 2018, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches
Ahuja’s “Le Damn Revisited” (2018) and “Xpect” (2018) are monumental interrogations of Pablo Picasso’s infamous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), long-considered a touchstone in the development of 20th-century European modernism and the artist’s manifesto to an early Cubist style, and “Weeping Woman” (1937), a testament to the male artist’s fraught relationship with the women in his life, a negative distillation of female experience. Both of Ahuja’s canvases include self-portraits, seizing significant moments within Picasso’s oeuvre to create a meta-work for and of herself. The self-portraits ground the works in the biographical as well as the art historical.
The choice to appropriate Picasso is potent: Not only did his Cubist style come from his own appropriation of the stylistic traits and formal conditions of Congolese and Fang objects that circulated among the avant-garde in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, but his works remain the standard by which other works of modernism are judged and oil painters remain in dialogue with even today. Picasso’s European, white, male, heterosexual subjectivity forms the locus of constraints leveraged by art history against artists who fall outside those categories. Ahuja boldly asks what it might mean for a woman of color to steal and transform Picasso’s work and insert herself—her body and its stories—into the history of painting itself.
“Le Damn,” 2018, oil on canvas, 80 x 84 inches
The body’s discourse in Western figurative painting since antiquity has been a proscribed one mobilized by Renaissance scholars’ mistaken assertion that the figurative remains of classical sculpture were and had always been marble white. Their original polychromy lost, these ruins of a Romanticized Greco-Roman utopia supported a narrative that one’s proximity to whiteness matched one’s sense of national belonging, power, authority, and intellectual and moral perfection. The body in Western art history thus remains loaded with a history of white supremacy and xenophobia.
Ahuja’s representation of her own body destabilizes the history of whiteness as the pedestaled manifestation of physical and moral perfection as well as the legacy of the nude female body and its sexualization throughout art history. This resistance is palpable in both “Le Damn Revisited” and “Xpect” due to the ways in which Ahuja stages and represents herself sitting or lounging in a studio-like space posed in front of her painted masterpieces, her gaze confident and open. With these images, Ahuja upends the historiographic unfolding of an art history dominated by the re-presentation of white women in artworks and the subsequent values of beauty and power imposed by a white-dominated culture. Wearing a form-fitting red shift dress in each image, her braided hair resting softly on her shoulders, Ahuja places herself front and center, resting in her own power in a space where the terms of her creative process and bodily representation are fully her own.
However, what is most striking about these two works are the sonogram images of her son Sule (born in March of this year), which Ahuja holds up to the viewer for examination. As monumental paintings of the artist as both the creator of images and human beings, Ahuja celebrates the female body and all its generative and creative capacities and thus turns away from the patriarchal values that have inscribed the female body as a site of physical and emotional weakness.
Ahuja has been transparent in the press and in conversations about the personal cost she endured to conceive, describing a traumatic journey of miscarriage, long periods of waiting, a rigorous fertility treatment plan, and finally, the birth of her son as weighing deeply on her artistic praxis. And yet, the brilliance of Ahuja’s work is her inclusion of these domestic and bodily experiences within her paintings and her decision not to rearrange, disavow, or cover over the experiences that for women and mothers have been kept from the narratives and discourses of art and its histories.
For Ahuja, artistic and reproductive creation share the same space in her paintings and create a space where the female body is centered as both subject and creator. By embracing the events and experiences that frame her life, Ahuja makes a case that life itself—the plants, cats, rooms, work, struggles, memories, histories, and people that have shaped her world—are crucial facilitators of a more inclusive and honest portrayal of art making. As an artist-wife-mother-daughter-sister-friend, Ahuja’s paintings engage the wide constellation that marries art, life, and history together in entangled proximity, with the figure—the body—acting as the connective tissue between them all.
Photos of the artist (and baby Sule) by Rachel Rock
“Le Damn Revisited,” 2018, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches, image courtesy of the artist.
“Xpect,” 2018, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches, image courtesy of the artist.