Interview: Mequitta Ahuja
by Wendy Vogel
Mequitta Ahuja’s solo exhibition, Automythography II, debuts a suite of new works that continue her exploration of self-portraiture, external and psychological space. The exhibition will be on view in the Mary Yancy Gallery on the first floor of Arthouse from October 27-January 2.
…might be good [...mbg]: I read an interview with you where you quoted Kerry James Marshall, your teacher and mentor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about using materials in a way that the subject or images are formed by the process of making, as opposed to the artist using the material in a straightforward representational way to form an image. What’s the value for you of experimenting with new materials, and has that come up at all in your new work?
Mequitta Ahuja [MA]: No, I actually tend to be a little hesitant with experimenting with new materials these days. It can be a bit of a distraction. The time it takes to be proficient in a new material, to gain something close to the mastery of a new material—that could take a lifetime. I really consider myself a painter, and I’m deeply committed and deeply fascinated by paint, and by oil paint specifically.
The enamel and glitter pieces—calling them an “experiment” would be a stretch. They are an update of an earlier body of work, and they came about in a very serendipitous way. I was working with enamel on canvas, which is a material that I started working with in graduate school, and I also had tracing paper around the studio. I wanted to quickly get a sense of what something might look like finished, and the tracing paper and enamel came together in a sort of meeting of convenience. I kept it hanging in the studio for a while. I was really interested in the contrast between the heavy enamel and that thin, delicate tracing paper.
Recently, for the Studio Museum in Harlem exhibition, the curator Naomi Beckwith and I started talking about how we might be able to update that earlier work. I wanted to refine the process a little bit because that tracing paper was like kid’s craft tracing paper. It was going to fall apart in five years and I wanted to find something that was a little nicer, maybe archival. I had been hand-coloring some architect’s vellum and basically, through some trial and error, I was able to come up with this new process. The pieces at Arthouse represent that work.
…mbg: Can you talk about the titles? They’re called Dream Sequences.
MA: Yeah, I’m thinking about the idea of a dream sequence in a cinematic sense, where a world is set up—an aesthetic is set up—with characters at the beginning of a movie, and then there’ll be a dream sequence. Usually some kind of tweaking of the visual cues in the movie turns it to the strange, but it’s on a recognizable continuum from the original setup. I was interested in coming up with a figurative alternative to the paintings. Something that could still live within that world, maybe as the dreams of the subject, her fantasies, her diversions, but just take a visual turn to something different, so that’s where the title Dream Sequence comes from.
…mbg: I notice that each of the Dream Sequence drawings have a specific title that refers to a character…Coolie, and then there was—
MA: —the Raptor, and Aya. Coolie, Aya, those are Indian terms for servants. Coolie is a general servant, and Aya is a nursemaid, like a baby’s caretaker. It sort of evolved from three pieces I made at the Studio Museum, and I’m actually still continuing this series on a different scale now in the studio. The somewhat strange actions that she’s doing for the benefit of birds: collecting sticks, materials for nesting, presenting these bundlings of her gatherings to the birds to erect their nests... It’s really just a self-invented mythical existence.
…mbg: Are they avatars of your automythographic self-presentations in the larger canvases?
MA: I would say that’s appropriate. A related source to my development as an artist is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. That was a central influential text for me. When I read it, I felt that I identified with the character and the way that Mowgli sort of occupies this liminal space between human existence and animal existence, along with his kind of unusual relationship to nature. Some of the titles of the original Dream Sequence pieces that are at the Studio Museum are directly out of The Jungle Book. It sort of evolved from there.
…mbg: There seemed to be an emphasis on working really big in your earlier work. In this show there are some smaller pieces; the landscapes are mid-sized; and then there are larger self-portraits. Can you talk about the scale shifts?
MA: I’ve always been interested in working large, and that’s something that Kerry would always talk about: “Size does matter.” There’s a sort of presence and a sort of confidence in large pieces. Spaces like the museum as a site have always excited me, so I’ve always been motivated to work on a scale that seemed to fit in the context of a museum space. In terms of the scale shifts, with the Dream Sequence pieces, there’s an intimacy that maybe takes you into a different relationship with that figure, like a psychological space. So I think the scale needed to come down, and even as I’m getting larger with them, I’m still trying to retain the level of detail and intimacy. Even the largest I think I could get is still fairly small compared to my really big works on canvas. I think the way that Elizabeth Dunbar laid out the show really works. It feels very balanced, and there’s a lot of variety in the way that the smaller pieces are somewhat integrated.
…mbg: I was also thinking of balance when I was looking at the Inside and Outside paintings in the space. Are they a reflection of an inside/outside landscape? Are they a separated diptych?
MA: There are three pieces in the show, Inside, Outside, and Conjure, that I think of as a triptych that has been divided up amongst the space. I think each piece works independently, as well, but I did paint them as a triptych. In terms of Inside and Outside, the titles really refer to a different sense of movement and compositional structure. Whereas Inside seems to cradle towards an inner center, Outside seems to lay and spread and feels expansive. Those weren’t premeditated differences, but going back to the question of using materials to create the image (as opposed to coming from the outside and imposing a sense of what you want the image to be by wrenching that control over the materials to form it), these pieces really were a call and response between me and the materials. I’d put something down, stand back, look at how it was working, and respond to that.
…mbg: Can you talk about your surfaces?
MA: I’ve just always been interested in surface texture and contrast. What’s somewhat new in this body of work is the way that the negative space of the canvas is integrated into the whole composition, at least of the triptych (Inside, Outside, and Conjure). They all share the same underlining structure. Dream Sequence is much flatter. The paper is a much more reflective surface, the enamel is shiny, and the glitter reflects light and creates this contrast with the tracing paper.
What I’m interested in is the physicality of the paint, so you have a sense of the scale from the aggressiveness of the marks, from the painterliness of them, the thickness of them. You have this sense of a body in a space composing these works, and the echo of that gesture extends to the figure’s presence in the painting as somewhat confident, commanding. I see that physicality of the paint related to the figure’s physicality.
…mbg: I was reading a little about Audre Lorde, who you have spoken about previously as the artistic parent to your Automythography series, in relation to a kind of non-linear history and a fictional space that’s created. In an article about Lorde’s work in The Crisis, the writer argued that she often gravitated to the company of white feminists in her personal life, where she would take strength and develop a position from being the marginalized voice. Looking at your work, by contrast, I wouldn’t call you a pasticher, but there’s certainly a mix of influences that eschews that type of positionality. Is that something you can talk about?
MA: That’s an interesting question. Part of it is my perspective on art history. The show at the Studio Museum is titled Usable Pasts, and we talked about how each artist in the show might relate to that phrase. One of the things I said is that I think of painting as a usable past. I think a lot of artists feel like painting is not interesting because of everything that has come before, whereas I feel the opposite. Once the language has been developed, now we can work with it, and maybe it is that that full language has only recently been established.
I don’t think too much about innovation in painting; I think about developing an attempt of mastery over the materials. So I think that sense of mixing styles is particular to being inheritors of that past, but without that kind of ideological commitment or mutually exclusive terms that those different innovations seem to be founded on, as far as abstraction….
…mbg: You mean progressing a language of abstraction or of a particular genre, like history painting or something?
MA: Right, or even of a political perspective, or feminism. I feel like I have an incredible amount of freedom to reach into each genre or moment of history and compose with it. In terms of a relationship with Audre Lorde, that was an influential source for me, and I recognize us as women, us as people of color, us as artists, as being able to do what we do from the foundation that women like her laid for us.
…mbg: Can you talk to us about your next show, Automythography III, that will go up at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts?
MA: It’s not in progress, but it’s about to be in progress. It’s going to be a combination of past work and new work. The show is going to be in September, so I’m just getting started on it as we speak. I don’t think it will be a radical departure from this show or the Studio Museum show, in the sense that it’ll be a combination of more works on canvas and new works of the Dream Sequence series. Materially or image-wise, what direction I might be moving with those…that I don’t know. This show at Arthouse I feel is a bit of an inversion of the show at the Studio Museum. The Studio Museum show has a very dark palette, with a lot of landscapes at night, whereas these are very bright. I see them as sort of fleshy in a way, and just more open. I imagine the work for the show at Minneapolis Institute of Art will have another new dimension, but I’m not sure what that is yet.
Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.