Project Space: Mequitta Ahuja

by Nicole J. Caruth

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      A new body of work by Houston resident Mequitta Ahuja is currently on view at the New York City gallery BravinLee. The exhibition, titled Automythography I, refers to Ahuja’s ongoing exploration into the “auto-mythic,” a term coined by author Audre Lorde to describe a combination of history, myth and personal narrative. The artist absorbs this notion in depictions of Black hair that, according to her blog, physically and conceptually convey “the psychic proportions hair has in the lives of Black people.” In Ahuja’s hands, long boundless locks suspended from inverted heads become abstract, and sometimes colorful, forms. Drawn shapes and surface textures are likened to hair texture. Entangled tresses morph into exquisite illustrations of cultural experience and exorcism. Below, the artist expounds the concepts behind her first installation in the Automythograpy series.

      ...might be good: In your mind, what is the biggest distinction between this exhibition and your first at BravinLee in 2007?

      Mequitta Ahuja: It was during my work on the 2007 show that I established several aspects of my current work: exaggerated hair, inverted head, a focus on self-portraiture, etc. In the 2007 exhibit, my transitions from the real to the “auto-mythic” occurred with color, paint surface and image. For this show I’m relying more on my use of waxy chalk and the paper surface. I use the crayon and paper in such a way that the link between mark and image is one-to-one; the marks become hair in a very straightforward way. With these works on paper, I stay very close to basic elements of drawing and try to maximize their visual and metaphoric potential.

      ...mbg: In one of the lead images for the show, Fount, hair begins to look embryonic, and lines start to resemble the delicate roots of plants, or membranes—there's a sense that if given more space these roots might morph into solid branches. I sense life beyond the picture plane. Can you tell me about your formal approach to such pieces?

      MA: I like your description. My works demonstrate a process of self-invention, which I link to art-making and imagination. Generative ability is one of my central concepts. Through my titles, I often make a link between this aspect of the work and sexual reproduction [with] titles like Ovulation Chart, Night Emissions, Insemination, etc. So the idea of the embryo is apt.

      Formally, I usually pursue definitive shapes. Working large, I often build my shapes with smaller elements. Although embodied by a finite shape, I do aim for the work to suggest an endless, internal world, which, like you say, extends beyond the limits of the page.

      In terms of my process for this piece, and relating again to this idea of “creative generation,” self-invention or world-making, my process often follows a kind of visual stream of conscious. To form a compositional structure, I started with the large elements of the picture; I sketched this out as a kind of armature. All of the smaller components were done in their final materials. At some point in the piece, I had all the materials going at once and was shuffling between water-based and oil-based paints.

      Dream Region is actually an update of a piece titled Night Emission that I made while in residence at Blue Sky Project in collaboration with eight teenagers. Because of the collaborative process, the piece was visually heterogeneous and different than anything I would have produced on my own. That piece was purchased through BravinLee at Art Chicago by the visual artist Nick Cave, whose work I admire very much. I wondered why he’d purchased it. I started to imagine Nick Cave seeing the work and I tried to imagine how it looked to him. Through that attempt, I started to see my work in relation to his and it truly changed my perception of the piece. In Dream Region, I tried to amplify the aspects of Night Emissions that I related to Cave’s work. I began with something figurative and moved into adornment, visual rhythm, pattern and design. While these elements were not foreign to my work, the process of updating the piece, based on my new perception, expanded the number and kind of each.

      ...mbg: How long have you been thinking about or working with this idea of "automythology"? And is it an idea that you will continue to work with after this show?

      MA: I read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography [by Audre Lorde] when I was in college. I was very depressed and was wandering through the school library when I bumped into a guy. We were two of a very limited number of Black people on the campus. I didn’t know him. The encounter was very mysterious. He asked me what I was doing. I gave a vague answer like “I’m looking for a book.” He scrawled the word “Zami” on a piece of paper and walked away. I found it and read it. To my memory, I never saw him again.

      The story is important because at that point in my life, I literally had so few encounters with other Black people, especially Black men, that I experienced each encounter as very significant. This accounts for the urgency with which I read the book and some of the impact it had on me. Much of my introduction to wider Black culture and history, and much of my understanding of my own ethnic experiences began with literature, shaped by authors such as Lorde, [Zora Neale] Hurston and [Toni] Morrison. 

      Self-portraiture, costuming, ethnic identity, hybridity, etc. are all ideas I have been working with for a very long time. I don’t remember exactly how or when I started thinking about Zami [again] but, I picked it up [for a second time] at a used bookstore around the time that I was working on the 2007 show [at BravinLee]. It is important to me to link back to that “parentage” of Black, female, creative production, especially since my work deals with personal agency in the formation of one’s identity. So, my re-discovery of Zami provided a lineage, a conceptual frame and, importantly, a new name for my project.

      ...mbg: Tell me about your color palette. What inspires your use of color?

      MA: In this exhibition as well as in my recent show at Lawndale Art Center, I have used a very limited palette. Dream Region is an exception. By removing the colorful aspect of the work, I’ve mitigated their fantastic nature and grounded the pieces in fundamentals of drawing.

      Four or five years ago, I was teaching a bi-weekly art class at a South Side Chicago public elementary school. My first few classes were very difficult. When I knelt to work one-on-one with a student, elements of my still life setup went whizzing by, as my students took the opportunity for a food fight. The head teacher suggested that I get rid of all the “art materials” and just stick to pencil and paper. I felt bad. I worried the kids would be bored or that it wouldn’t feel like art class anymore. But I tried it. With only pencil and paper, the children were calm, focused and hardworking. To be honest, I think I am exactly like those kids. All the color and materials, shinny enamel and sticky oil paint, it can all be, at times, over-stimulating and I find it difficult to harness my own self-control. By limiting my materials and palette, I have opened up other artistic possibilities. Many of the new works could fairly accurately be described as “pencil and paper” and yet I feel the artistic possibilities are inexhaustible.

      ...mbg: It appears that you often work across multiple canvases, or that many pieces comprise one. Is there a particular reason why you extend an image across two or more surfaces?

      MA: Many of the works in this show follow a multiple sheet format; one of the pieces is comprised of six sheets of paper. I use this format to serve a number of functions. For example, it allows me to simultaneously work with a vertical/ figurative layout and a horizontal/landscape layout. This dual format works well for me since, in many cases, I develop the abstract elements of my work in [the areas of] earth and sky. Primarily however, the literal “break” between pages supports the pictorial and conceptual shifts that take place in my work from realism to abstract thought and form.

      A former resident of the Core Program (2006-2008), Ahuja’s work was included in the recent exhibitions Houston Collects: African American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Flowback at Lawndale Art Center. Automythography I is on view at BravinLee through May 2, 2009.

      Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn. A regular blogger for Art21, her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, NYFA Current, CUE Art Foundation, and Gastronomica. Her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, merges two of her greatest loves: art and sweet foodstuffs.

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