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

Riffs and Relations: Shaping the DC Landscape

During and after the Great Depression and World War II, when fewer museums dotted the local landscape, Duncan Phillips (1886–1966) joined forces with cultural leaders like James V. Herring (1887–1969) who opened the Howard University Gallery of Art in 1930, and Alonzo J. Aden (1906–1961), who with Herring in 1943 opened in their home the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first black-owned commercial art space in the US.

Herring and Aden championed Phillips’s efforts to bring modernism to a wider audience. They valued his emphasis on the innate visual relationships found in art, and his belief that works should be displayed in intimate settings, ideas they interpreted in their galleries. As they developed their collections, Phillips, Herring, and Aden supported many of the same artists and acquired examples of their work. They crossed racial boundaries, forged collaborations, exchanged art loans, and fortified a professional and collegial relationship. Together, they endorsed local artists and incorporated diverse voices, helping to make art more accessible and shaping the cultural landscape of this city.

Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition features several artists associated with these three cultural institutions:

David C. Driskell, Still Life with Sunset, 1966, Oil on canvas, 48 x 32 in., Collection of Joseph and Lynne Horning

David C. Driskell studied art at Howard University and Catholic University. While at Howard, he began visiting The Phillips Collection, where he enjoyed seeing in the galleries works by American and European modern painters. Driskell recalled his early visits: “I just felt a sense of welcome there . . . Washington was still a segregated city [but] . . . I felt accepted at the Phillips . . . [I would] walk down the hall and see a Cézanne, and a Rouault, and come down the steps, and there would be [a] Marjorie Phillips . . . and [a] Pippin . . . I could go there and see great art and feel I might become part of this.” Driskell would later bring his Howard art students through the galleries of the Phillips.

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, Acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4 in., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976

Alma Thomas, the first fine arts graduate of Howard University, accompanied Driskell on visits to the Phillips, especially on Sundays for the concerts. They became associated with a new generation of artists encouraged by the cooperative interactions of Washington’s cultural leaders. After graduating from Howard, Thomas began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School. She brought students to various cultural institutions, including the Central Public Library, the Smithsonian, the Corcoran, and the Phillips. In the 1950s and 60s, the large-scale abstractions by Washington Color School painters—Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and later Thomas and Sam Gilliam—permeated the local art scene. Phillips, Herring, and Aden promoted, collected, and exhibited works by these artists.

James Lesesne Wells, Primitive Girl, 1929, linoleum cut, 7 ½ x 7 in., David C. Driskell Collection, Permanent loan to the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park

Renowned for his work during the Harlem Renaissance, James Lesesne Wells was also an educator, painter, printmaker, and designer who mentored many students during his 39-year tenure at Howard University in the art department. Primitive Girl shows the artist’s engagement with African art and expressionist printmaking techniques. Phillips acquired Wells’s Journey to Egypt in 1931, making it the first work by an African American artist to join the museum’s collection.

James Lesesne Wells, Journey to Egypt, 1931, Oil on canvas mounted on cardboard, 13 3/8 x 15 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1931


Loïs Mailou Jones, Place du Tertre, 1938, Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 22 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

In 1930, James V. Herring recruited Loïs Mailou Jones to teach at Howard University, where she would remain an art instructor for the next 47 years. In 1937, she received a yearlong fellowship that brought her to Paris, where she painted still lifes, portraits, and street scenes in an Impressionist style like this example. She began exhibiting her art at the Phillips in the 1940s during the Christmas Sales Exhibitions, which premiered the work of local artists, who received all proceeds from the sales. Jones, who was friendly with Phillips, felt that these shows provided “a wonderful opportunity for young artists to exhibit in a first-class gallery.”

In this spirit, we invite Howard University students and staff to visit Riffs and Relations for free on Saturdays and Sundays with Howard ID.

The Nabis and the Decorative Arts

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) demonstrates how the Nabis sought to break down the artificial barriers between the fine and decorative arts. Beyond painting and prints, the artist employed their aesthetic of flat colors, decorative patterning, and silhouetted forms on screens, wallpaper designs, tapestry, stained glass and more.

Pierre Bonnard, Stork and Four Frogs (Le Marabout et les Quatre Grenouilles), 1889, Three-panel screen, distemper on canvas, Each panel 62 3/4 x 21 1/2 in., overall 62 3/4 x 64 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

This striking screen marks a major turning point in Pierre Bonnard’s adoption of the Nabi aesthetic. Just the year before, he had become one of the group’s founding members and a chief proponent of the group’s core belief in art as an extension of everyday life: “At that time I personally envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application: engravings, fans, furniture, screens.”

Bonnard’s choice of a bold vermilion ground and a palette of saturated, non-naturalistic colors owes a debt to the “magnificent example” of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888), which was shown in Paris earlier that year, left a lasting impression on Bonnard, who kept a postcard of it on his studio wall. Like many in the Nabis circle, Bonnard also found inspiration in Japanese art, especially 19th-century ukiyo-e prints. Bonnard later earned the moniker “le Nabi très japonard” (the very Japanese Nabis), and his screen bears the flat, unmodulated color, asymmetrical composition, and botanical motifs characteristic of Japanese art. Stork and Four Frogs is one of at least seven screens Bonnard made in the early years of his career.

Paul Ranson, Rabbits (Les Lapins), c. 1893, Design for wallpaper; distemper on paper, 23 5/8 x 29 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

During the 1890s, wallpaper was in vogue as an interior design element, and wallpaper manufacturers turned to artists to develop appealing designs. Paul Ranson and Maurice Danis were among the Nabi painters who worked with wallpaper motifs. In 1893, Ranson received a commission from Arthur Sanderson & Sons, a major London wallpaper manufacturer and exporter.

The playful composition of Rabbits, featuring a trio of bunnies feasting on radishes, is one of several wallpaper designs painted by Ranson. In choosing the rabbit as his subject, Ranson followed the advice of art critic Charles Blanc, who spoke of the charm of painting objects in wallpaper that “we see every day—those things that we can easily recognize, such as flowers, fruit, familiar birds, domestic animals, and common plants.” Nevertheless the company must not have considered Ranson’s design marketable and never fabricated it into wallpaper.

Paul Ranson, Woman in Red or Woman with Cape (Femme en rouge or Femme à la cape), 1895, Needlepoint tapestry; wool on canvas, 59 x 39 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Woman in Red is one of several tapestries Paul Ranson made in the 1890s, a time when the medium enjoyed a revival in France as part of a larger embrace of the decorative arts within the official art salons. Ranson, like Aristide Maillol, became an enthusiastic practitioner of tapestry design, joining William Morris and other English artists who were leaders in the international Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th- and early-20th century.

In this design, Ranson conjured out of a few sinuous lines and subtle, broad tones a standing female figure surrounded by a field of flowers, a subject common in medieval millefleurs tapestries. Ranson frequently depicted women in nature, finding the subject rich with mythological and biblical associations. His tapestries were shown in public and private galleries throughout the 1890s, with Woman in Red being featured most often.

Like his fellow Nabi artists, Ranson created the initial design for his tapestries, but did not fabricate them. In most instances, Ranson relied on the weaving skills of his wife, France. She was known for her coarse stitching, as seen in Woman in Red, which enlivens the surface with an undulating textural pattern.

Ker-Xavier Roussel, The Garden (Le Jardin), 1894 (executed 1895 by Tiffany and Co.), Stained glass; 48 7/8 x 36 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Made after a preparatory study or cartoon by Ker-Xavier Roussel, this window was one of 13 commissioned by German-born Paris-based dealer Siegfried Bing in collaboration with American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Bing conceived of the idea for the commission soon after his return from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he admired a display of Tiffany’s stained-glass windows. Stained-glass design, revived from a grand tradition practiced by medieval guilds, provided a rich vehicle for the Nabi to reimagine their pictorial designs as light transmitted through color.

In addition to Roussel, Bing commissioned designs from other Nabi artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, and Edouard Vuillard. Of the 13 commissioned windows, Roussel’s is one of only three surviving examples. Despite the valiant effort from Bing and Tiffany to introduce stained glass to the French market, the works met with mixed reviews and no further commissions followed.