Mequitta Ahuja first gained serious traction in the art world for her self-portraits, a deceivingly straightforward genre whose many contradictions she skillfully exposed. Where most male artists immortalized themselves however they pleased – Rembrandt loved to dress up, and Albrecht Dürer assumed a pose which, in his time, was thought fit only for Christ himself – Ahuja knew there was more to a person than just their ego and imagination, as both were steeped in cultural and racial heritage.
Rather than painting on blank canvasses, Ahuja prefers to work on an underlayer of collage. This way, as she indicated in one lecture, brushstrokes don’t cover up a passive surface so much as negotiate with the foundation on which they rest. The art that results from such a partnership is, like anyone’s true identity, less of a cohesive whole and more of an elegantly balanced sum of parts, one that, for Mequitta, includes the black, Indian and American sub-identities that coexist within her.
Although some of the images in her new exhibit may look violent, this first impression could not be further from the truth. Ma, as the title implies, is a tribute to Ahuja’s mother, Sonia, who passed away as many of these pieces were being created. Here, Ahuja relied heavily on the knife, her decision to create figures by scraping off paint rather than adding it signifying her “figuring something new out of loss,” as she put it. “What’s left behind, that’s the painting.”
As is to be expected from an artist who prefers to describe her work as “automythology,” Ma reaches beyond Ahuja’s family history, across the world and into the past. For this series, for instance, she was particularly inspired by the paintings of Hans Holbein. Rather than blindly copying him, however, Ahuja worked to make his techniques her own – an endeavor that proved challenging as the German master worked almost exclusively with white skin-tones:
“The method seems devised for White skin,” Ahuja notes, “so how to use the method to describe Black skin? It’s a formal problem. It’s a problem of art history – the received form – a buff colored people drawn on buff colored paper. Will Black skin break the unity of the figure and the ground? Will Black skin feel like an interruption?” Her authorial intent contains the answer. The artist is known for asking profound questions like these, and their latest work doesn’t disappoint.
Elsewhere in the Aicon Gallery, visitors may admire the work of another artist interested in reconciling their own creativity with the legacy they inherited. Khadim Ali’s What Now My Friend?, made in collaboration with Sher Ali, is at once a faithful homage to and an original commentary on Persian and Islamic iconography. It is an exhibit that – like Ahuja’s own – was born from the personal experiences of its creator. As such, bit of context wouldn’t be out of order.
The images of What Now My Friend? were heavily inspired by the Shahnameh. This epic poem, which chronicles the rise of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire, left a deep impact on Ali. Its many stories did not just entertain him; they influenced the way he saw himself as well as the world. “I always thought of myself as a hero,” he once confessed during an interview with Artist Profile. “But then when the story ended the hero gets killed and this was very painful for me. It was the demons who survived.”
Ali’s life, like his sceneries, knows its fair share of demons. The artist’s grandfather, who belonged to an ethnic minority group known as the Hazaras, fled his ancestral home in Afghanistan to escape religious violence. Though raised in a different place, Ali found himself in a very similar situation as his upbringing happened to coincide with the rise of the Taliban – a Sunni Muslim terrorist group that picked his birthplace as its next stronghold.
One item in the series, a handwoven tapestry titled Tell Us, You Tell Us, places these two major influences – the symbols of the Shahnameh and the silhouettes of Taliban soldiers – together inside the confines of a single frame. Striking as though this juxtaposition may be, What Now My Friend? offers an even starker contrast between myth and history with its inkjet prints, many of which place the precisely drawn, traditional-looking scenes alongside emphatic, crudely drawn sketches and outlines.
“When I was a child I didn’t have pencils,” Ali mentions in that same Profile interview. “I used charcoal picked up in the dirt street outside a bakery (…) the mud houses had rendered walls and when I found a smooth wall I would draw on it with the charcoal. There were a lot of complaints from neighbors. One day a man caught me and beat me. He called me a sinner.” Whether or not the inkjet prints bear any relationship to anecdote, I do not know, yet this connection seems both clear and powerful.
In several other works, Ali takes conventions of traditional Persian artwork and updates them for a new age. The geometric shapes prevalent in many of these ancient prints and tapestries, previously used for strictly ornamental and harmonious reasons, here become repurposed as periodic tables or flags of contemporary nations. The artist also adds some iconography of his own, mixing symbols of voting booths, nuclear explosions, and – on one occasion, a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini with the gods, monsters and heroes that dominated artwork of the past, creating a striking contrast between the fictive figures of myths and legends, and the historical actors and concrete objects of modern times.
If you’re in New York City and you are comfortable enough going into an art gallery given the rapidly rising infection rates around the country, I highly recommend you visit the Aicon. It’s not every day that a venue manages to exhibit the work of two artists whose work share so many thematic similarities, and it’s all the more impressive that the layout of the space itself still manages to frame each of these shows as autonomous, independent and self-sufficient collections.