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

Meet Anne Taylor Brittingham

Meet our new Director of Learning and Education Strategies Anne Taylor Brittingham. Anne oversees program development, in-gallery interpretation, and adult, teacher, and PK12 initiatives.

Photo of Anne Taylor Brittingham

Anne Taylor Brittingham with Alma Thomas’s Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968)

Tell us about yourself!
I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. I was a Classical Studies major at Wake Forest University and got my MA in Art History from the University of Virginia. I fell in love with art history when I studied abroad in Florence, Italy, in college. I discovered museum education through an internship in the education department of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the summer before my senior year of college. That internship completely transformed my career trajectory. After grad school, I taught English at a high school in Thessaloniki, Greece, and spent two summers working on an archaeological dig in Aidone, Sicily. My first museum job was as a Gallery Teacher at the J. Paul Getty Museum. From there I went to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (now Frist Art Museum) in Nashville as Curator of Interpretation, then to the Corcoran Gallery of Art as Director of Interpretation, and then to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville as Director of Learning and Community Outreach and then Chief Engagement Officer.

What excites you about working at The Phillips Collection? What do you think makes the Phillips unique?
I’m so excited to be back in DC working with a collection I love! The structure of the Education and Community Engagement department is really innovative and provides so many opportunities for collaboration and growth both within the museum and out in the community. I love the size of the museum, think the collection is so special, and I am so impressed with the education department and the work they’ve been doing.

What project are you most interested in working on?
I’m so excited to partner with Nehemiah (Director of Community Engagement) in thinking about how a museum can be relevant across the DC metropolitan area and can be a model for how a museum creates the structure to enhttp://blog.phillipscollection.org/2020/03/03/meet-nehemiah-dixon/sure its greatest impact in the community. Nehemiah has done such amazing things and is so well-connected in the DC community. I can’t wait to start working together. I’m also excited to join the education team and think strategically about how we can build capacity and expand the museum’s reach with PK12, families, and adult audiences. And finally, I think the museum’s presence at THEARC and its partnership with the University of Maryland offers unlimited possibilities to redefine what a museum can be and what it can do.

Why do you think arts education is important?
I think arts education teaches people how to look closely, think critically, and take risks. It also lets us hear and understand different opinions and viewpoints. I have had amazing experiences with students and adults in front of works of art. Even when the art is unfamiliar, I love when it makes people instantly curious. The pull toward works of art can be just as strong as those forces that keep us from opening up and talking about sensitive issues. The artwork can become a vehicle to carry us through important conversations about a whole range of contemporary issues. In a museum education department, we can create experiences that are real, engaging, hands on, and personally and socially meaningful.

What is your favorite artist/artwork at the Phillips and why?
Alma Thomas’s Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968). I love the rhythm, pattern, and color of this painting and how it makes me feel when I stand in front of it. I love Alma Thomas’s biography—her work as an educator in DC and then after retiring from teaching, devoting herself full-time to painting at the age of 68. At 80, she was still innovating! When she spoke to the New York Times at the opening of exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1972, she said: “When I was a little girl in Columbus, there were things we could do and things we couldn’t. One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.” Alma Thomas shows us how far we’ve come, but also how much farther we can go. She shows us the power of museums to change what we see and how we see the world in which we are living.  

Tell us a fun fact about yourself. 
I finished in second place to an Olympic gold medalist in swimming . . . when we were 11 years old!

Meet Nehemiah Dixon

Meet our new Director of Community Engagement Nehemiah Dixon III. Nehemiah is excited to craft a robust community engagement plan at Phillips@THEARC (where he has been part of the advisory committee since its inception) and beyond.

Photo of Nehemiah Dixon III

Nehemiah Dixon with Sam Gilliam’s Red Petals (1967)

Tell us about yourself!
I am a native Washingtonian and proud graduate of the School Without Walls, Senior High School located on the campus of the George Washington University. My first authentic art class was a life studies class at the Washington Studio School in Georgetown, but I knew art was my passion in the fourth grade when I drew the perfect Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. My Grandmother was an artist, who loved to make copies of Van Gogh’s and she would make these large mixed-media landscapes and display them in her all-white living room. She would take us to the Smithsonian museums on the weekend which I believe sparked my curiosity about the industry and probably directed a lot of my choices. I always knew I wanted to stay in the industry, so I graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a bachelor’s degree in General Fine Arts. In 2016, I started a company called Nonstop Art where I worked with a team of artists and developers to create and manage a makerspace in an affordable housing complex. No matter what form it takes, making art and working in the arts has been and a fulfilling and rewarding career.

What excites you about working at The Phillips Collection?
I worked at the Phillips back in 2005/2006 as a Museum Assistant. I met so many cool artists, writers, and historians, some of whom I am still friends with today. My two brightest moments were when Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party returned and I had the opportunity to witness all the fanfare and excitement around the museum with the staff and the patrons. I literally spent hours staring at that painting, engaging visitors about the historical significance of that piece. I also met Sean Scully after his artist talk at his solo show! This alone makes the Phillips avant-garde in its relationship with artists and its community. As Director of Community Engagement I am excited to work with an amazing team of scholars, artists, and educators. This is a dream come true.

What project are you most interested in working on?
There is a kid somewhere in Washington, DC, that just drew the perfect Ninja Turtle. I want to find them and bring them to The Phillips Collection. In the Spirit of Duncan Phillips’s mission to support the unknown artist in his community, I want to uphold the idea that artists and community need us. Without Duncan Phillips we might not know Vuillard. Just imagine how many people’s lives we can touch, inspire and change forever with each program, event, opening, conversation, and experience! I am most interested in hearing from the community, taking that input, and providing excellent experiences!

What would you like people to know about Phillips@THEARC?
A few weeks ago Monica Jones (Phillips@THEARC Program Coordinator), other staff members, and I held a conversation with the community about what a flag represents as part of our project State of DC (a collaboration between MidCity Development, Nonstop Art, The Phillips Collection, and DC Public Library). We used two pieces from the permanent collection, Vik Muniz’s American Flag (2009) and Jake Berthot’s  Little Flag Painting (1961) as inspiration for the discussion. The discussion turned into a critique about how one flag was pristine and made using technology versus the other which was painterly and aged. One member of the community said the pristine flag belonged in “Northwest,” whereas the more rugged flag felt like “Southeast.” This important dialogue emphasized for me the importance of exposure and belonging. We are there to listen and engage with our community about what is relevant to them. What you should know is that Phillips@THEARC provides access to a catalogue of very important works of art to a historically underserved community. Our commitment to wellness and arts programming could very well improve the quality of life of the residents we serve.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
I am most happy making art or talking about art, or helping others make art, or planning something related to the arts—it’s a thing. Also, I almost joined the circus.