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WM | Mequitta Ahuja: Black-word at Aicon Gallery

By Siba Kumar Das

Contemporary painting and figurative art are both vitally alive. In 2021, viewing today’s art world through the lens of that year’s Alice Neel retrospective, Roberta Smith said that “figurative painting is ascendant.” For proof that this judgment still holds good, you could do no better than see the Aicon Gallery show “Mequitta Ahuja: Black-word.”  

A figurative painter of both African-American and South Asian Indian ancestry, Ahuja has made for the show paintings and drawings that carry forward a genealogical research project that she has inherited from her deceased grandmother on her mother’s side. The show’s heart comprises paintings featuring fictive images of her nineteenth century Black ancestors. For this show of paintings, Ahuja has derived imagery from documentary evidence that includes photographs of their descendants, letters, and written descriptions in government documents. Also in her ken is material in the archives of Swarthmore College’s Friends Historical Library, in which she found an 1838 letter from David White, a White Quaker, to his cousin Aaron about the removal of free people of color from North Carolina, a slave state, to the free state of Indiana. This cohort included Ahuja’s great, great, great, great grandmother Milly Morris and her seven children. She was separated from the other key player in Ahuja’s genealogical narrative such as Milly’s husband, the still-enslaved Henry Knox. 

For her paintings, Ahuja has appropriated the language and even the handwritten script of the 1838 letter. To depict her appropriation, she deploys another appropriation. She inscribes her texts within reinventions of the speech scrolls that served multiple narrative purposes, especially storytelling, in many late-medieval and early-Renaissance European paintings. 

Ahuja’s engagement with the Western canon is a critical part of her artistic strategy. Through it, she has entered a lineage created by multiple African-American artists, including Robert Colescott (the lineage’s pioneer, he died in 2009), Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Henry Taylor, and Kerry James Marshall. By joining this great family, Ahuja is helping extend the very history of painting by producing art that is changing the medium and its history. 

In late medieval and early Renaissance Europe, the Western art world went through a revolutionary transformation. Artists learned to create naturalistic effects, including the fall of light and the illusion of three-dimensionality, as well as evoke human emotion more intensively. While this opened new doors, notably the entry of secular themes and the beginnings of Western landscape art, continuity remained hugely important, especially the focus on enhancing spiritual devotion. 

It is this art history that Ahuja primarily references through the intertextuality of her “Black-word” paintings. She does this not just through her appropriation of speech scrolls. She also harks back to other Early Renaissance tropes—especially the breastfeeding Madonna. But this is not all. Her intertextuality brings into its fold art created in later periods.  

“Black-word” comprises nine large paintings, two studies in the form of modest-sized paintings, and six drawings—seventeen works in all. Going forward, Ahuja plans to extend the series in a larger painting-cum-writing project that will build upon her continuing research into her family history—a past replete with erasure and denial of liberty. 

Ahuja’s painting “In a Free State” exemplifies her project wonderfully. The difference in legal status between the enslaved Henry Knox and his wife Milly separated them physically; yet here they are together, in a fictive scene, with their small child, a swaddled baby whom Milly holds in her left hand. The painting is at once figurative and a departure from realism. Ahuja depicts a breast of Milly’s as a near-cylindrical object jutting into the viewer’s space—almost a sculpted object. She simplifies the family’s facial features using geometrical forms, again creating a sculpted look. The painting evokes their longing to be together in “a state of personal freedom.” The artist articulates this through a Renaissance-style speech scroll, which gives voice to the yearning even as it transports the viewer to the tradition to which the convention belonged. 

Ahuja has chosen for the painting a palette dominated by browns and greys set off against an inflected powder blue background. This may be just a matter of capturing on canvas Black skin colors. Yet it might be something more. For, doesn’t the palette also reference the browns and greys that characterized early Cubist painting? Neither Picasso nor Braque, Cubism’s first creators, adopted pure abstraction, and, as art historian Anna Moszynska says, each maintained “a fine balancing act” between abstraction and representation. Adapting ideas employed over centuries in trompe l’oeil painting (see the Metropolitan Museum show “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil”), both also introduced into painting, via collage, text from newspapers, commercial labels, musical scores, and the like. This was an innovation not dissimilar to Renaissance speech scrolls. Picasso and Braque did not wish entirely to lose the narrative power that representation enabled. We see from “In a Free State” (and other works on show) that this is the very force that Ahuja mobilizes through her figurative art. 

We have in another painting— “Cousin”— a beautiful still-life that displays an elegant tea service atop a flower pattern-bedecked tablecloth. Alongside it is David White’s letter to Aaron, his “highly esteemed cousin”, about Milly Morris and her children’s removal to the latter’s neighborhood. We glean this and related information from the speech scrolls that Ahuja has artfully placed in the painting together with images of the letter and the container in which it arrived. Relative to the tea service, the letter and container are much too large, and two pages of the letter seem to jut into the space above the other papers. This is a painting incorporating multiple perspectives, which may make you think of Cezanne and even possibly Picasso and Braque. It is a complex, layered story that “Cousin” tells, for the speech scrolls speak of ancestors of Ahuja’s who could not tell their own story. The still-life also reinforces a reality apparent in “In a Free State.” Milly’s husband Henry Knox was forcibly separated from his family; the scene of family intimacy depicted in the other painting did not take place in real life. 

Not all paintings on show have speech scrolls in them. Take a prolonged look at “Ancestor” —a haunting, color-filled painting. A mother in a multi-colored dress is breast-feeding a baby who is pointing a finger at her just as the Christ-child does in many Renaissance paintings. Here, too, the mother’s left breast has a sculpted look, and it too has a cylindrical shape that juts into the viewer’s space. She squats in a bare room with a floor comprising wooden planks. It seems to be evening and sunlight streams into the room through a window, creating a long, violet shadow that is magnificently set off by the floor’s blue color. You might think now of the Impressionists and Symbolists exploring the possibilities of violet in profound ways. Imagine, too, the narrative convergence arising from this allusion meeting the allusion to Renaissance art, especially the period’s many paintings of the nursing Madonna. While no speech scroll enlivens “Ancestor,” through her magical use of color and allusiveness, Ahuja embeds in the painting a complex, powerful storytelling force. 

We see from “Black-word” that Ahuja is pushing art-world boundaries. In different ways and in different works of hers, she alludes to or appropriates tropes and conventions that the history of Western art brought to the fore in different times, especially during the Renaissance and the period of modernism. Referencing literary tradition, T.S. Eliot said in 1919, that the past can be “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” Through Ahuja’s art, she is effectively altering the Western art tradition that is hers as a contemporary African-American artist. By drawing upon that tradition, she’s also enlarging the role played in her art by the attribute Susanne Langer identified in her aesthetic writings as “symbolized import”. 

Says Lydia Polgreen, opinion columnist at The New York Times, “… it is only now that decades of work by scholars, activists and journalists [have] placed chattel slavery at the center of the American story rather than its periphery” Recent developments—such as attacks on the 1619 project and school-library book banning related to Black history—show that this is but a fragile achievement. At this critical juncture, the show “Black-word” tells us that, through the power of her art, Ahuja is throwing light on an integral part of American history that must not be forgotten.