If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched
into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.
In Mequitta Ahuja’s self-portrait In Back Garden: Green Carpet, the painted figure is centered, filling most of the frame. Naked, her back toward the viewer, she has her face turned over her shoulder to confront an unseen camera as she holds its shutter release in her left hand.
The image is emblematic of both Ahuja’s body of work and her process of building a picture. Typically, she starts by taking a series of self-portraits, a type of solo performance with the camera. Contorting this way and that, she aims to capture the gestures of her figure—and the narrative potential within them—and to use the finished representations as source material. She clicks the shutter release and repositions herself. She clicks the shutter release again. “I want to stretch the space in front of the camera,” she explains.†
In Back Garden: Green Carpet reveals Ahuja’s performative self-portraiture in a very direct way. In most of her other works, however, posturing for the photo process provides Ahuja with figures that she sketches into more epic, fantastical landscapes. Consider, for instance, Wiggle Waggle—the second image in Rhyme Sequence, the five-panel foldout that concludes the portfolio presented here: the nude female figure stands boldly, as an adventurer might, in a dense landscape of otherworldly water and wood.
The surfaces of both In Back Garden: Green Carpet and Wiggle Waggle, as is common with Ahuja’s work, prove multifaceted, and are covered in patterns made with Indian textile-printing blocks, old letterpress type, and streams of nonsensical words. These patterns are often printed onto materials such as vellum paper and papier-mâché, which Ahuja then tears and rearranges to create a quilted backdrop. “What I’m starting with is a cultural ground,” Ahuja states, “using pattern, color, and marks to form a kind of paper quilt that integrates elements across time and across geography.”
Ahuja’s practice of using herself as subject and history as context inspired her neologism “automythography,” which also serves as the title for the following selection of her work. The term was also inspired by Audre Lorde’s 1982 book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, in which Lorde introduces the term “biomythography” to describe the woven nature of myth, cultural history, and the notion of telling one’s story. Lorde’s term allowed Ahuja to rethink her own story, and to imagine and project her various identities onto canvas. However, beyond using “automythography” to describe the act of constructing art and narrative, Ahuja is also defining a way of being in the world, “a strategy I use to counter limiting frameworks. It is the expansive and inclusive process of self-construction and self-representation, a creative form in which I gain and enact my agency.”
Ahuja’s mother is African American and was raised in Cincinnati. Her father, an Indian, moved to the United States from New Delhi when he was in his early twenties. The blending of these heritages forms the basis of Automythography, and this commingling of lineage comes across most clearly in the richly worked patterns her compositions explore. Take for example Jingle Jangle—also in Rhyme Sequence—in which a nude female stands in a forest, filling the frame. She looks directly at the viewer, one eye askew in reference to Ahuja’s own amblyopia or “lazy eye,” a detail she includes in all of her self-portraits. Importantly, the figure is overlaid in prominent tessellations of blue which hearken back to the mosaics of her heritage. The mythic being—standing upright, self-possessed—raises her dappled arms as gold coins fall from her outstretched hands.
Katie Geha, Director
Dodd Galleries, University of Georgia
Copyright © 2014 by Mequitta Ahuja. All images courtesy of the artist.