The most recent batch of Guggenheim fellows includes a rising Baltimore artist working to redefine the self-portrait.
Mequitta Ahuja, who was a finalist in 2015 and 2017 for the Sondheim Artscape Prize, was among the 173 winners — a mix of academics, artists and scientists. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation received nearly 3,000 applicants in the awards’ 94th year, according to its website, and the winners were unveiled April 4.
Ahuja, 42, has lived in Baltimore since she received an artist’s residency at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011. Her works have been widely exhibited across the world — from Baltimore to Paris.
The painter draws on her African-American and East Indian background to produce figurative paintings and works on paper, and her current work focuses on reshaping the self-portrait. She said she wants to shift the self-portrait of a woman of color away from a conversation piece about identity and personal condition, and instead use the medium to demonstrate her expertise on painting and art.
The Guggenheim grant — she declined to disclose its valie — will further her work with self-portraiture. She said it’s the largest award she’s ever received.
Ahuja previously applied for a Guggenheim grant in 2012, and said she was pleasantly surprised to be named among this year’s winners.
“I thought I had a shot, but a long shot,” she said.
She said receiving the grant challenged her to live up to the award and has strengthened her work in the studio.
“As artists, we learn to work when money, when validation — external validation — when, kind of, status is in short supply. We always find ways to make our work, but it is incredibly encouraging to be recognized and to get that external recognition,” Ahuja said. “It gives me more faith in myself, more faith that my chosen path is worthy.”
Ahuja is working on a new series of oil paintings for an exhibition in Milan, Italy, that will open in November. The works will explore issues of art history, domesticity, femininity and the body through self-portraits, she said.
“In some ways the figure is not the subject of the work,” she said. “Often the figure is kind of eclipsed or there in addition to some other kinds of subject matter that has to do with painting.”
Several of Ahuja’s pieces — including three large paintings that were originally exhibited at the Walters Art Museum — are on display in London and will move to a gallery in Brussels, Belgium, later this week.
Ahuja isn’t the first Guggenheim winner from the Baltimore area; last year’s winners included composer Oscar Bettison of the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute; photographer Mary F. Calvert, an Annapolis resident and two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; the visual artist and musician Paul Rucker; and science writer Deborah Rudacille, an English professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christina Tkacik contributed to this article.