Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Mequitta Ahuja: I love that oil paint can do anything, that you can make it look like anything. So it feels to me like it has pretty infinite possibilities. I feel that you can discover the world through any intense focus on anything and for me, my interest is doing that with painting
Jo Reed: That is artist Mequitta Ahuja and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. I first saw Mequitta Ahuja work a few years ago at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. I didn’t know her work, but I found myself circling back to it again and again. The paintings were breath-taking and seemed to contain a multitude of stories. Ahuja's work often centers on self-portraiture, and while her large colorful canvasses have centrally positioned her own African-American and Indian American identity, she also claims her authority as the artist. She emphasizes the work of painting, depicting multiple genres of painting in pictures within the paintings themselves, gesturing to history, collapsing time and making new meaning. Ahuja’s works have been widely exhibited in museums and galleries nationally and internationally including the Phillips Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her many fellowships and awards include a 2009 residency to the Studio Museum in Harlem, a 2014 residency to the Siena Art Institute and a 2018 Guggenheim fellowship award. Mequitta earned her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she studied with the great painter Kerry James Marshall—whose philosophy has shaped her approach to work
Mequitta Ahuja: Kerry was my advisor in graduate school, and he has had the single most profound influence on my development as an artist. His philosophy is that of mastery. Mastery of the techniques as well as the knowledge base of one’s field. It’s a slow process, a lifelong process, and when I’m painting and drawing, I’m still processing things Kerry said to me 5, 10, 20 years ago. I visited his studio several years back and I showed him some images of my work, and for one of the paintings he said, “Too many of the elements are inert,” and Kerry’s never trying to be cryptic. He’s very interested in clarity and in demystifying artmaking, but he brings so much information to each thing he says that if you don’t have comparable information, many of the things sound like riddles. So this, you know, phrase, “Too many of the elements are inert,” like, what does that mean? It’s not a moving picture. <laughs> It’s a painting.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Mequitta Ahuja: And this was a painting, by the way, that has done well in the world. It’s been collected by an institution, an art historian has written about it, but of course for me, Kerry’s critique is the story of the painting, and then fast-forward. This past fall I was working on a new painting and it was far along and that word came into my mind, “inert.” It’s been six years since Kerry’s critique, and it’s not like I paint infrequently. I’m full-time in the studio. It took me six years to see it for myself. I have enough experience and knowledge to look now and not just understand theoretically what that could mean but to actually name it when I see it. That element is inert, and once I diagnosed the problem, even if I didn’t know immediately how to improve, you know, I know what to look for. So how’s the temperature of the color? How’s the weight of the line? If I were to take the shape out of the painting, is it an interesting shape? And, you know, by answering these kinds of questions, I’m then on my way to improving the painting. So multiply that kind of slow learning by a hundred and that’s Kerry’s influence. It’s lesson after lesson.
Jo Reed: Before we talk further about your painting, tell me about you. Where were you born? Where were you raised?
Mequitta Ahuja: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I don’t remember it. We left when I was quite small, and I’ve lived in a variety of places. Mostly it’s my art that has taken me to all different spots, so I spent some time in Chicago, where I went to graduate school. I then went to Houston, Texas, where I did the Core Program. I then moved to New York, where I did the Studio Museum in Harlem residency, and then a residency brought me to Baltimore, Maryland, at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and when I was there I met my now-husband, and we have recently moved to Weston, Connecticut, which is where I grew up.
Jo Reed: So it’s definitely a circle, eh?
Mequitta Ahuja: Yes.
Jo Reed: <laughs> Were your parents at all interested in art?
Mequitta Ahuja: No. I came to art through all the things that you do as a little kid that have anything to do with marking a page, really. Coloring books, doodling, handwriting. I didn’t grow up with art or around artists. I didn’t go to art museums really as a kid. I remember at the grocery store they had a wall of coloring book pages, submissions for coloring book competitions, and I remember that that was something that I liked. I liked things that other kids made. I didn’t think about the history of art. I just liked to draw, and I wanted to be good at it. I wasn’t particularly good at it in terms of natural talent. I don’t think I had that. What I had was keen interest, and my parents were supportive, but mostly they just didn’t stand in my way. My mother bought me my first easel, which I still use.
Jo Reed: And why painting specifically?
Mequitta Ahuja: I love that oil paint can do anything, that you can make it look like anything. So it feels to me like it has pretty infinite possibilities. I feel that you can discover the world through any intense focus on anything and for me, my interest is doing that with painting.
Jo Reed: Your mother was African-American, your father is from India, and you’ve said you’ve grown up in predominately white neighborhoods and went to white schools and your multiracial family never really discussed this with you.
Mequitta Ahuja: <laughs> That’s true.
Jo Reed: And the blending of these heritages formed the basis of your work. In an earlier body of work, you put your identity front and center.
Mequitta Ahuja: That’s right.. I feel that my work has a kind of dividing line, however, so I have a whole body of work where that identity very much was the central focus of the work and specifically sort of making a whole out of these disparate elements, and then I kind of came to the end of that projects. You know, as you get older, to some degree, the idea of, “Do you accept me? How do I fit with your categories?” these things become less important, and I became interested in what else I could do with the genre of self-portraiture. So really thinking about moving self-portraiture away from being about identity, being about the self, and moving it towards ideas about representation, pictorial representation. So how to make painting that, yes, positions me as I am, as a woman of color, but to not necessarily only talk about that. To not necessarily only talk about my social condition but to also take an authoritative position in relation to art.
Jo Reed: You, in many of your paintings, you’re positioned in your work as both the subject and as the artist. It’s not unusual for your paintings to include you as the artist working.
Mequitta Ahuja: Right.
Jo Reed: And you’re creating paintings within the paintings.
Mequitta Ahuja: That’s right.
Jo Reed: And that, of course, changes the way we look at self-portraiture.
Mequitta Ahuja: Yeah. Some of my ideas for self-portraiture really came from the self-portrait of Poussin. It’s a 1650 painting. I always find that I kind of go to these uncool parts of art history and I sort of-- that works for me. I kind of align myself with things that are uncool and I kind of don’t even like the idea of cool or the way that art is supposed to be cool or somehow being black is supposed to be cool. I dismiss both of those as limiting stereotypes, and this, you know, 1650 self-portrait by Poussin is really a kind of a fuddy-duddy, but it’s of central importance to me, and he, in that painting, presents himself as a painter, as an authority within the realm of art and presents himself with paintings. So some of my ideas, this is where, you know, they come from, and it’s really from Poussin that I get this idea of presenting the artist as a, you know, authority within the field.
Jo Reed: We’ve said self-portraiture is often at the heart of your work, and you’ve talked a bit about how it’s evolved, but I’m curious, first, when and why did you begin self-portraits?
Mequitta Ahuja: Honestly, it was pretty basic reason at the start, which is I wanted to deal with a figure as a painter and I was a ready model. So I think at first it was very much a practical solution and once I got going in the mode I wanted to see what was all the territory I could explore there.
Jo Reed: You used a process to create self-portraits that involved performance, photography and then either drawing or painting. Can you kind of walk us through what you did and how that worked?
Mequitta Ahuja: Yeah. So to some degree that’s still part of my process. So I take these photos that I use as source material and then through a process of drawing I work out the whole scene and eventually then begin on a canvas. You know, one thing that we could do is kind of walk through one painting as an example.
Jo Reed: Let’s do it.
Mequitta Ahuja: Okay. So <laughs> my painting, “Portrait of Her Mother,” tells the story of my recent body of work and how that body of work was inspired by my mother’s illness and death. She died on May 3rd, 2020. My mom had cancer. She had a type of cancer that any of us could develop, and I somehow feel there’s a beauty to her cancer, that it suited her. The same process that allows for cell repair for life, for growth, for healing, can become exaggerated, and that’s what killed my mom, and that idea of creation and destruction makes me think of an idea of the divine in Hinduism, a making, breaking cycle, dance, of life and death. So I started making a new body of work when my mother was sick. It was drawing as a process of grieving, making something out of loss, and I found a process, a material parallel to loss, by scraping away paint. So in a series of oil sketches, I put down a layer of paint and then I drew into it, so pulling the paint away, scraping the paint away, to make my imagery, and my mom’s body was changing rapidly, and I had these photographs that I’d made nearly two decades earlier when I was in graduate school. I took photographs of myself and my mother both nude as source material for a painting I was working on back then, so I went back to those photographs and I used them as source material for this new body of work, specifically for these single-color oil sketches. Most of them are either red or blue, and I then made a few large paintings based on those sketches. So in the painting titled “Portrait of Her Mother,” I show myself in my studio with two of my large, monochrome figure paintings, one red, one blue, both of which are using this method of scraping away paint, and both are based on this idea in Hinduism of creation and destruction, and I show myself standing in front of these two paintings holding a drawn portrait of my mother. So you get the whole story from this one painting, and I think about the painting as describing the way that it was made.
Jo Reed: When somebody is coming to see-- we’re on “Portrait of Her Mother”; let’s stay there-- and they’re seeing it in a gallery or a museum what’s your expectation for how much they’ll be able to read of that painterly text that you put out there?
Mequitta Ahuja: Expectation maybe is minimal. My hope is that there is enough clues there and to some degree it depends on whether the painting as exhibited as—alone; is that my only work in the space or it contextualized with other work. I believe that somebody even just seeing this work alone could probably guess that that is a portrait of the artist, that the woman in the painting is not a sitter for the painting, not a model for the painting but is actually a representation of the artist by the artist; I feel that that’s implied by the table of paint and brushes there. And again if I think about even just the rendering of my mother’s portrait now obviously somebody’s not going to say, “Oh, I see that her mother passed away from serious uterine cancer,” but the title of the painting combined with the way that I’ve rendered her portrait I think shows the sense of loss and even just the intimacy of the way that I’m holding the portrait and presenting it to the viewer, the kind of look on my face, on her face I think, I hope projects that sentiment and even further, deeper story, how centrally important my mother is to my life. Our bond was tight and unique of mother-child relationships I know and I want that also to be implied, visible in the paintings, that I felt inspired to make a body of work out of this loss and out of the gain, out of the relationship, out of the love.
Jo Reed: I think the intimacy in that painting is apparent. How much do you work out before you actually begin to paint on the canvas? Do you do studies? Do you sketch?
Mequitta Ahuja: I do a lot of preplanning at this point and drawing is such a central part of the process of making these complicated paintings. So take a painting like “Portrait of Her Mother,” it’s essentially four figure paintings-- and arguably two, three different kinds of approach to the figure, and so for each of those I had to work out that notion of painting before I got to the canvas so the head of my self-portrait -- I rendered that fully as colored pencil on drafting film. The portrait of my mother that is a drawing with a bit of pastel I fully worked that out actually in several different iterations while I was searching for the kind of way to represent her, and I wanted to find a way of drawing that signaled to the viewer that there was a sense of loss, that there was a kind of feeling of nostalgia so I was looking for a-- an idiom of painting, a mode of drawing that would express in the form this kind of feeling of loss. So first I had a more photographic rendering of that portrait and that felt wrong to me and then I had a full-color very similar to the way I painted myself rendering and that felt wrong to me. I really needed to take it down to this it’s not exactly an outline but something close to an outline with just a small bit of color so even that lack of color gives you a feeling of loss.
Jo Reed: It’s almost as though you’re in conversation with that painting as you’re doing it for all the preplanning that you do.
Mequitta Ahuja: Right, although I didn’t think of it <laughs> until far along; These paintings exist-- the blue painting is the blue figure painting in the back exists as a separate painting. The red painting of the figure, which is a kind of shiva dancing figure, that exists as a separate independent painting. And this really is how things were kind of laid out in my studio one day and I thought I can tell the story of this work through capturing the scene.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you this. Painting is expensive. Your paintings are large, and they’re colorful which takes paint which takes money, and I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy now, but when you first started out, how did you do it? How could you afford the canvas, the stretchers, the paint, the brushes, the space and the time?
Mequitta Ahuja: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. Like, a lot of people don’t want their children to pursue art out of a fear that they won’t be able to support themselves, but I think that if-- especially if you’re well-educated, and particularly if you don’t have children, I think you can live well on modest income. You don’t have to live in New York. You don’t have to buy a house. You can take your time and develop your craft, and that’s what happened for me. That’s how I did things, and over time I have been able to afford a reasonable life. Now I have a child. Now I own a house, but, you know, I didn’t do those things in my twenties, so, you know, back when I was finishing school I did work with local arts organizations as a teaching artist and I-- my landlord actually let me use a space in the bottom of our apartment building that I used as my studio space. It was unheated in Chicago, so you make it work. That’s kind of, you know, one of-- another lesson from Kerry. He would always say, “Work to the limits of your resources,” and that meant work as large as you could get your painting out the door, and it meant work within your means but, you know, well within your means financially and kind of in every sense of that word of resources.
Jo Reed: You had a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem in your mid-thirties. What was it like being in New York generally, in Harlem specifically, and I’m just curious about you’ve said you’ve lived from place to place and whether where you are has some impact on your work or the way you work?
Mequitta Ahuja: So it was so amazing to be at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was my first time being in essentially an all-black space, and that was very nurturing for me. It’s an incredibly nurturing environment. Everybody there is supportive, especially of the artist in residence, so it really feels like they’re all rooting for you, they’re all looking out for you, and that was just an amazing time for me. Now, does where I live impact how I work? I would say largely no. I would say I’m somebody who lives in my mind, and to some degree that doesn’t matter where my mind is. <laughs> I feel that the work that I make is grounded most fundamentally kind of in my mental space.
Jo Reed: You’ve studied myths and folklore. How and why do you incorporate these images into your work?
Mequitta Ahuja: Yeah. So again that kind of goes back to my earlier body of work where I was using for many years this word “automythography” to describe a kind of process of identity formation, which I defines as not just something sort of natural to you or that you were born with but that you were involved in your own process of becoming and that that was a combination of nature and culture and place and your own creative imagination so that was the piece that I was most interested in is this kind of agency that we have in not just who we are but how we are in the world and to some degree how people perceive us.
Jo Reed: You’ve talked about representation and the importance of that, the way you represent yourself and beyond identity but represent yourself as a subject as well as an artist within the work itself, and so there’s always this doubling that’s happening in your work and multilayers. We’re seeing the past and the present and the future because you’re looking at us, the viewer looking at you as you’re holding a painting that you already did, so there’s all this layering that happens I think and there’s a collapse of time that that feeds into.
Mequitta Ahuja: Yeah. Another kind of uncool historical idea that I find myself drawn to is didacticism. When I was in graduate school that was the worst thing that someone could tell you about your work, that your work was didactic, and so of course me being me I’m like “All right. Well, let’s see what we can do with didactic painting.” That’s actually an idea I’m really interested in. What if you break all of the rules of modernism and think about painting as a text, as a narrative, something that explains itself like the Rosetta stone? It has everything you need to decode it not because it’s so reduced that all you have is a surface with pigment but like I described in Portrait of Her Mother because it tells its own story.
Jo Reed: Your work is very personal and at the same time because of the way you paint it also takes a span of history at the same time and I’d love to have you talk about that relationship.
Mequitta Ahuja: Well, we have these contemporary notions about self-portraiture being about the self and being about identity especially if you’re talking about a woman or a person of color, that women and people of color are so often asked to mine our personal biographies as case studies in our social condition, and that’s interesting to me but I’m also interested in these earlier, more historical notions like presented by Poussin’s 1650 self-portrait, these other kinds of ideas of what self-portraiture can do. So I’m interested in doing both and not not talking about the self but to not only talk about the self.
Jo Reed: I’m curious how or if your work practice has changed throughout the years. You’re a mother now; that had to change something.
Mequitta Ahuja: Oh, my work changes a lot and so to the extent that the way that I work has to match that-- those changes those shifts happen frequently and certainly becoming a mother has put a lot of new restraints on my time. I have always been a morning person but I’ve become a hyper morning person so that I get to the studio first thing in the day before anybody else in my household is up, and I find that that keeps my head in my work even if I’m then not able to get back to the studio for another six hours and that kind of sets my focus for the day and I’m able to get a number of hours in in the studio even with a toddler. We do have some baby-sitters that come but at this point we had expected to probably enroll our son in some kind of daycare but given the pandemic we’ve held off on doing that.
Jo Reed: Do you find joy being in the studio?
Mequitta Ahuja: I find every emotion being in the studio, truly every emotion including ecstasy and including despair. This work while my mother was ill and through losing her certainly every feeling was there with me in the studio; I was working through those feelings. My mother did see a lot of the work, which-- I’m really glad that she was able to see how much she inspires me, but I would say that kind of emotional intensity it fluctuates a lot in the studio, it’s-- I’m not always in some kind of extreme emotional state, but those-- that kind of emotional intensity I’d say is pretty constant and consistent since I’ve started making art when I was a kid.
Jo Reed: Mequitta, I think that’s a good place to leave it. Thank you for giving me your time.
Mequitta Ahuja: Thank you so much, Jo.
Jo Reed: That is artist Mequitta Ahuja—you can see her work and find out where she’ll be exhibiting it at MequittaAhuja.com. Check out arts.gov where you can see an image of the painting “Portrait of her Mother”. You’ve been listening to Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed stay safe and thanks for listening.
Painter Mequitta Ahuja has been re-visioning self-portraiture. While her large colorful canvasses have centrally positioned her own African-American and Indian-American identity, she also claims her own authority as the artist. She emphasizes the work of painting: depicting multiple genres of painting in pictures within the paintings themselves. The result gestures to history, collapses time. and makes new meaning. Ahuja’s work has been widely exhibited in museums and galleries nationally and internationally, including the Phillips Collection, the Brooklyn Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her many fellowships and awards include a 2009 residency to the Studio Museum in Harlem, a 2014 residency to the Siena Art Institute and a 2018 Guggenheim fellowship award. If you like to learn about the process of making a work of art, this is the podcast for you: Ahuja walks us through the making of her spectacular painting “Portrait of her Mother,” as well as her own evolution within the genre of self-portraiture, and the importance of her mentor Kerry James Marshall.