Mequitta Ahuja is a visual artist whose work plays with the constraints of historical contexts. Elements like a drawn curtain, flattened architecture, or a direct gaze: rather than being just referential, or juxtaposed, they end up absorbed into a newer reality—natural there, but not quite here. Ahuja deals in self-portraits. They’re not about herself, but in her words, “about figurative painting and the artist as picture-maker.”

Each component of one of her paintings explores questions and problems of representation. In her Performing Painting series, she paints frames in, or makes a painting of a painting. Drawing out this performance of painting, of course, also means drawing out the performance of viewing. This analog to a frame story inserts a shim between the viewer and the figure, exposing the process of witnessing itself.

In 2010 Mequitta was named an “Artist to Watch” in ArtNews; that remains true today. We had the opportunity to speak via email about how she harnesses reference and combination to build new narratives.

Figurative paintings signal the subject on the canvas, while also alluding to larger concepts like identity, history, and colonialism. You cite a variety of cultural influences in you work—Egyptian, Hindu, and early American. Which concepts or symbols do you apply to your work? How do you present these layers of history and cultural identity to viewers?

Birthright (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

Great question. I made and first exhibited this work, Birthright, as the final piece in a series that dealt with a conventional portrait pose used for the depiction of American women during our colonial era. After repurposing the pose in several works, in this work, I diverged from the pose but returned to its original symbolic meaning, which was wealth and vanity. While my subject is also showing off, my work is about freedom. I am of Indian and African American descent. In Birthright, I show my subject wearing gold bangles and a pendant painting with the Hindu god Hanuman. She holds a family heirloom, which is a scrapbook my maternal great great aunt put together in the 1920’s.

The accessibility of photography gave black people of earlier generations a way to produce images that countered the prevalence of negative imagery. I don’t know who the woman in the photograph is or how she might be related to me except that written on the back of the photograph, which I found in the scrapbook, are the words “Aunt Gertie.” What I wanted to capture was her visible pride and self-possession. I added a floating element behind her based on the floating or wind-swept fabrics occasionally seen in colonial era paintings, which are symbolic of a free spirit. To further emphasize the theme of freedom, I used a faster and more liquid brushstroke and left an area unfinished as if the work is coming into or dissolving out of form.

Which images from early American history inform how you depict these representations?

Close Quote (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

One of the mezzotint engravings that served as source material for many early American portraits of women was a print by Isaac Beckett of Princess Ann. Colonial American artists such as John Singleton Copley used it, as did John Greenwood. Here, in the painting within the painting, I’ve represented John Greenwood’s version which is in the National Gallery in D.C. My painting is titled Close Quote. The idea of quoting runs throughout my works. I quote my own work, and I quote works from history. The large painting I’ve represented here on its side is based on my work, titled Border.

Border (2016). Oil on canvas, 84×80

You mention the concept of “meaningful fiction” and how it centers around established conventions in painting. When posing for your self-portraits, do you use historical photographs and paintings? How do you intend or repurpose those conventions?

We tend to think of the history of art as a series of exceptionally unique ideas, but in fact, the figurative painting tradition is deeply conventional, and artists have mined narrow spaces for invention. Like artists from the past, I have taken up the mannerisms and conventions of the tradition. For example, I think of painting as a stage set on which symbolic action is performed. This is an old idea. Rather than a biblical or mythical scene, the action I present is the mental and physical work of painting.

Seated Scribbler (2015). Oil on canvas, 84×80

In Seated Scribbler, I show my subject doing one thing as a pretense for telling you something else about her—making literal the idea of text and subtext. The image in Seated Scribbler is related to four types of images from art history—paintings of saints writing the gospels, portraits of learned people, paintings and statues of scribes (including the ancient Egyptian statue of the Seated Scribe, my main inspiration for this work) and self-portraits in manuscripts.

In the past, scribes were artists. They both wrote and illustrated manuscripts. Depictions of scribes in illuminated manuscripts are some of the earliest self-portraits. In this picture, I’ve distilled the link: scribe, artist-self-portrait, to a single image. The representational tool I’ve used to do this is the idea in painting of using a single source of light. I’ve isolated and presented the illusion of light as the main event of the picture. Her shadow is projected onto her page, turning the page into a vehicle for her self-portrait. I’ve shown my subject writing as a pretense for presenting her as a maker of self-portraits. This is one example of how I’ve repurposed an old, in this case ancient, form, and put it in service of my own representational needs.

Fingering Vanitas (2015). Oil on canvas, 84×80

Some of the distinct features prevalent in your style are interior scenes, paintings, drapery, a woman lifting the curtain, forcing the viewer’s attention on both the scene and the woman. What is the significance of this motif?

Forty (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

The history of art is also the history of ownership over image production—who does the representing, who is represented and in what manner. In this work, Forty, which is the painting I am working on now, my subject is the model, the maker, the owner, the agent and seller of the work. The space of the painting is a space of her (my) control. My use of the motif, a painting within a painting, is akin to the concept in theater of breaking the fourth wall. I am acknowledging the contrivance of paintings.

Showing myself with and within my paintings is my substitute for the conventional self portrait of the artist standing before the easel. With the contrivance of the painting within the painting, I highlight my intimate relationship to both the act and the object, the verb and the noun, painting.

I want the paintings to do multiple things at once: visually catalog painting conventions such as swaths of fabric, folded pieces of paper, the female figure, considerations of the gaze; point to history while maintaining contemporary relevance; present naturalistic form while also emphasizing underlying abstract structure; explore what is to be a person of color in America, while at the same time moving the genre of self-portraiture away from identity and toward a discourse on picture-making. This is a key point for me, perhaps the key point. The genre of self-portraiture, especially self-portraits by women, minorities and people of color, has long been understood narrowly as being about identity. But what does it mean to depict the artist in an artwork? For me, that is not about personality or biography; it is about art-making. I present the artist creating and controlling a discourse on representation, and yes, she is a woman of color.

Sales Slip (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

What ideas do you want the audience, especially women of color, to take away from your repositioning of past narratives?

My work has gone through many shifts over the years, but it has always been about creative capacity and weaving negatives to form positives. I depict the woman in my work, myself, my subject, as self-sufficient and creatively expansive. I see her as myself but also as an emblem, a female archetype—empowered, skillful and abundantly imaginative.

There is a lot of discussion right now about who made America, who belongs here, whose country it is and in what way we should remember our past. I’ve been personally exploring how we became the country we are by looking at American history through our first attempts to render Americans in early American portraiture. I was pursuing that interest before the 2016 election, but my interest has taken on new significance to me in light of the racism and misogyny that the election and the current political atmosphere has amplified. Some of what I’ve learned is that so much of what we deal with today was present at our origins, during the Colonial era, including criminalization and persecution of the poor, which came out of a belief that God’s favor could be read through one’s ability to accumulate wealth, beliefs in a hierarchical superiority of races, the creation of an aristocracy comprising the winners of capitalism, religious justifications for extreme violence. Those are part of our bedrock.

Perhaps surprisingly, you can learn those things about America from looking closely at the ways Americans depicted themselves. Collectively, colonial American portraits create a narrative of obsessive pride in wealth and ownership including the ownership of other human beings. Those things are all visible in early American portraits. I have not addressed all of those things in my work, but I have learned about them through the process of doing my work.

Paper (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

In terms of arts role or the responsibility of the artist, I don’t look to art for direct action. Activism as a form of art is a viable route, but it’s not my route. I don’t need art to provide answers or solutions. I do think art, in part through the study of art history, is a way to responsibly examine the historical record, which is a way for us to understand how we got here.

As for what I make, and how I think what I make can be a contribution to positive progress, I am invested in a long, slow process of gaining the skill and knowledge to produce art at a high degree of excellence. I believe excellence in any field and with any content, whether it’s a Neil Degrasse Tyson or a Misty Copeland, offers a counter-narrative. We assert and make visible everything of which we are capable. That’s what I’m working towards. The holes in our history, the gaps in the historical record and the reality that there is so much to oppose, for artists, those things are opportunities, and it’s for individual artists to figure out what they have to contribute.

For me, painting, its practice, its mechanics and its history, is a lens through which I view everything.

My daily concerns are formal—questions of mark and surface, structure and space, color and shape. My body of work documents my development as a maker and as a thinker. I want my viewers to see what I see and to see how I visually problem-solve, which is a way of thinking. I want the viewer to see me in my process of thinking and painting, painting and thinking.

Notation (2017). Oil on canvas, 84×80

To learn more about Mequitta’s work, visit her site.