Riffs and Relations: Mequitta Ahuja

Artist Mequitta Ahuja discusses her work Xpect, which premiered in Riffs in Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, on view at The Phillips Collection through May 24.

Two images: Left: Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn, colored pencil sketch; Right: Le Damn, 2018, Oil on canvas, 80 x 84 in.

Left: Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn, colored pencil sketch; Right: Le Damn, 2018, Oil on canvas, 80 x 84 in.

Because of the historical context they provide, museums like The Phillips Collection give artworks a feeling of permanence. The things you encounter came before you and will be there for future generations.

Or not.

In 2017, Adrienne Childs, guest curator of Riffs and Relations wrote me in an e-mail, “At this point I am at the proposal stage, and I have no clue if this will fly.” Because I had offered to make a new painting for the show, when Adrienne’s proposal was accepted, my participation was still in question. Adrienne wrote: “Because [the painting] does not exist at this point, the Phillips can’t really put it on the final checklist.” In an attempt to tip the scale in my favor, I made two paintings. Everyone likes a choice.

Image of Mequitta Ahuja's painting Le Damn Revisited

Mequitta Ahuja, Le Damn Revisited, 2018, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in., Courtesy of the artist

Image of Mequitta Ahuja's painting Xpect

Mequitta Ahuja, Xpect, 2018, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in., Courtesy of the artist

That sense of inevitability that one feels in museums and other sites of history is a fiction. Having a painting of mine hang on the walls of The Phillips Collection was as unlikely and tenuous as was the birth of my son, whom I regularly describe as a miracle.

In both paintings Le Damn Revisited and Xpect, I chronicle my journey to motherhood. The gray-scale painting within the painting is my rebuttal to Picasso’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso’s painting is about the threat and allure of sex. Picasso presents woman—her body and her seduction—as an embodiment of that tension. I, too, address the threatening aspect of sex, but from a woman’s point of view. In my rebuttal to the Picasso, I depict my range of feelings from determination to despair throughout my process of trying to conceive. In Xpect and Les Damn Revisited I conclude that story with a declaration and celebration of my pregnancy.

Far from inevitable, holding my baby in front of my painting Xpect at The Phillips Collection feels magical and improbable. None of this was supposed to happen. We did it.

Photograph of Mequitta Ahuja holding her son in front of her painting Xpect

Mequitta Ahuja and her son at The Phillips Collection, February 2020. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

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