For centuries, artists have used images to convey ideas about specific identities. The visual language they have used has shaped and moulded how we perceive gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Artist Mequitta Ahuja hopes to shine light on the construction of identity in art through her large-scale self-portraits. “I am African-American on my mother’s side and South-Asian on my father’s side. I use my work to unify my mixed heritage. As I got older, concerns about my identity become less pressing and, instead, I find myself reflecting on self-portraiture as being about the artist as a picture-maker. In other words, I increasingly focus on the artist’s self-portrait as a discourse of representation,” Mequitta tells It’s Nice That.
Mequitta’s paintings feature the artist in her studio, drawing in her sketchbook or covering up an artwork. Her depiction of the painter with a brush in hand places emphasis on the planning and the construction process of a portrait and, by extension, underlines the subjectivity of representation. “I show my protagonist at work – reading, writing, handling canvases in the studio – and I show the work itself, the mark, the assembling of marks into form, the brushstrokes. In these ways, I replace the common self-portrait motif of the artist standing passively before the easel. I alter and re-contextualise imagery to illustrate the mental work of paintings,” she says. Mequitta injects her work with agency; her empowering female figure takes the reins in uncovering the fabrication of the images we are surrounded by.
“My subject is almost always a female artist of colour. By positioning a woman of colour as a primary image-maker, I knit my contemporary, personal and painterly concerns into the centuries-old conversation of representation,” she says. Mequitta’s subject matter may be constant but the artist plays with the ways in which she chooses to present her figure. In her painting Paper, for example, she covers the woman’s face with a newspaper or a magazine. In Notation, however, she depicts the sitter in the early stages of art-making. In this way, Mequitta redefines self-portraiture and reimagines what type of painting can look like.
Mequitta’s current exhibition, Notatations, at Tiwani Contemporary gallery in London is made up of large paintings that depict the artist executing menial tasks inside her workspace. “This exhibition is in part a proxy visit to my studio, but it’s also a visit into my mind. You are able to see my interest in painting as a practice, as a historical narrative and as an object,” she says. By inserting herself into her painting as a figure of authority, Mequitta affirms her place in the artistic canon as a female artist of South African and south Asian descent.
“For me, painting, its practice, its mechanics and its history, is a lens through which I interpret the world. To return to my central question: why is it important to move the self-portrait genre away from identity and toward a discourse on representation? Authority. Because we, as women, and we, as people of colour, are not only experts on ourselves and on our social condition. I am also an expert on art. My paintings tell you what you need to know about paint – its form, its conventions and its history. As women, as people of colour, we can have that authority.”
Mequitta Ahuja’s exhibition Notations will be on at Tiwani Contemporary until 9 June 2018.
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