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Artsy | How Contemporary Women Artists Are Reimagining Cubism—and the Body

By Tara Dalbow

“Nothing changes in people from one generation to another except the way of seeing and being seen,” wrote Gertrude Stein in Picasso, her 1938 portrait of the Cubist pioneer. In the early 20th century, artists around the world set out to process and represent the effects of accelerated urban, industrial, and technological progress on visual perception. Early Cubists, concerned with the spatial relationship between a form and its parts, dissected familiar objects, including human bodies, into planes, portraying them on canvas as they are conceived of in the mind.

More than a century later, a surge of artists—many of them young and female—are engaging with Cubist techniques. This trend of disjointed forms is perhaps unsurprising considering our current crisis of representation, defined by the failure of the government to represent the governed, media to present factual accounts of events, and culture to integrate diverse perspectives in a holistic way. Combined with the continuing phenomena of gender inequality and sexual violence, these destabilizing conditions have yielded increasingly hostile environments for women. The reversal of Roe v. Wade denied millions in the U.S. the right to access safe and legal abortion; across the globe, proliferating online media depicts the female body as a space for objectification rather than inhabitation. Women’s physical and psychological selves, consequently, become severed.

In this context, contemporary female artists are reimagining the modernist tropes of fragmentation, flattening, and simultaneous perspectives to reflect current ways of seeing and being seen. Artists like Farah Atassi, Tahnee Lonsdale, Mequitta Ahuja, Akea Brionne, and Danielle Orchard fracture and distort the body, evoking the dissonance between exterior and interior worlds and the dynamic nature of identity. Cubism explored art’s ability to shatter and rebuild. Contemporary female artists are using it to a similar effect, demonstrating the resilience of women’s bodies and perspectives.

“Young artists have the power to shed light on the new ‘crises’—or ones that have only recently entered the space of art historical discourse—that speak to both the world of images and historical conditions of race, gender, colonization, environment, and digital media,” explained Donna Honarpisheh, an art historian and curator at the ICA Miami who has written about the global legacy of Cubism. “Female artists are able to both question and subvert classical forms of realist representation while also establishing their perspectives as women or as people of color as part of their technique and process.”


While Lonsdale’s characters appear mysterious and anonymous, Mequitta Ahuja, an African American and South Asian figurative painter, aims to animate hers with voices and stories long denied to them. Ahuja’s densely layered self-portraits and familial portraits synthesize the historical and personal, using text, monochromatic color palettes, and Cubism’s planar geometry and graphic flatness. (“I’m always asking myself what the most essential, basic architecture of this image that I’ve made is,” explained Ahuja.) The resulting portraits investigate the act of picture making and its sociohistorical implications. By centering herself—a woman of color—and her family as the primary storytellers and subjects, Ahuja subverts the parameters in which the Western canon portrays women’s bodies and non-white cultural history.

“Ahuja’s works use broad personal and historical contexts to create canvases that not only contain multiple perspectives but multiple gazes,” said Honarpisheh, “suggesting that the painting looks at us as much as we look at it.” In a 2023 exhibition at Aicon, Ahuja recast traditional portrait compositions, like those of the Christian Holy Family and royal weddings, with depictions of her 19th-century matrilineal ancestors. For example, As They Please (2022) depicts Ahuja’s forebear nursing a child and enwreathed by a banderole emblazoned with language from recently discovered familial archives. Co-opting a pose traditionally reserved for the Madonna and Child, Ahuja asserts her family’s place, and so her own, within the canon. Similarly, her appropriation of various Cubist techniques—which were themselves influenced by non-Western art traditions—restores a sense of artistic agency.