How Contemporary Women Artists Are Reimagining Cubism—and the Body


Tara Dalbow

Danielle Orchard, Quarry on Green Island, 2024. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarellli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

“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.”

As an example, Honarpisheh pointed toward French Syrian artist Farah Atassi’s recent series of paintings that recall Picasso’s bathers as a means of exploring the relationship between artist and model and restoring the painted subject’s autonomy. First shown at Almine Rech, Atassi’s portraits of bathing women, assembled from graphic triangles, squares, trapezoids, and semi-circles, stare out at the viewer from flattened shorelines.

“I feel that my way of life, my freedom, and my statement as a painter is a feminist demonstration itself,” explained Atassi in an interview. She recalled studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where she felt that women like herself weren’t taken seriously as painters, but rather regarded as pretty props in the male-dominated space. Channeling her experience of marginalization, Attasi situates her dissected figures within geometric motifs that erode the distinction between background and subject. This refusal to privilege the reclining models over their environments not only subverts the expectations of the male gaze, but also creates a sense of synergy between the women and their surroundings.

Portrait of Farah Atassi by Rebecca Fanuele. Courtesy of the artist.

Tahnee Lonsdale, Our Human, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

British painter Tahnee Lonsdale, the subject of an upcoming show at MASSIMODECARLO, also builds the female figure from disjointed geometric shapes. Rendered in deep shades of lapis, scarlet, and teal, her forms feel robust and totemic despite their fragmentary constructions and distorted postures. “I want to show them taking up space on the canvas and also as containing a lot of space,” said Lonsdale.

Some canvases feature a single figure filling the frame, while others depict forms splintering apart, suggesting an incarnation of past, present, and future selves collapsed into one scene. Hovering between an ethereal metaphysical realm and the sensuous corporeal world, the paintings press against the bounds of figuration. In the burgundy and cerise Our Human (2022), the swollen female figure appears to push back against the confines of her own form, her segmented features expanding beyond their natural boundaries—like a literal representation of the feminist imperative to “take up space.”

Portrait of Tahnee Lonsdale by Phil Cheung. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Portrait of Mequitta Ahuja by Nick Riley Bentham, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

Mixed-media artist Akea Brionne also addresses the exclusivity of the art historical canon by analyzing the impact of colonial systems on cultural storytelling, identity formation, and assimilation. Her family’s own history of displacement and migration from Belize to Honduras and on to New Orleans left her without adequate ancestral archives, so Brionne relies on dreams, family lore, and imagination to portray her lineage. The resulting digitally printed jacquard tapestries imagine female figures, African masks, and Giorgio de Chirico–esque architecture in seaside landscapes comprised of fragmentary shapes and details that break apart.

“My work’s concerned with the way we actually move through space and challenging traditional representations of place in relationship to it,” explained Brionne. “It’s like how you can be in a different place in your mind than you are in real life, and somehow you are fully in both simultaneously.” Her recent works employ overlapping grids and patterns to establish a sense of spatial synchronicity—of being in multiple places at once. Brionne’s figures often appear at odds with their surroundings—dressed in shimmering ball gowns on a beach, for example—suggesting a discrepancy between their interior and exterior worlds.

Portrait of Akea Brionne in the studio, 2023. Photo by PD Rearick. Courtesy of the artist and Library Street Collective.

Danielle Orchard’s subjects seem more at home. Built up from thick impasto, colorful planes, and sharp, sensuous lines, her paintings envisage nude female bodies in quiet domestic interiors—often using Cubist techniques to create a subtle sense of unruliness. In Keep Warm (2023), a woman sleeps with her arm atop her book while another woman stands over her with a blanket. The flattened picture plane presents the sleeping woman’s body as vertical, the inverse mirror of the standing friend, to uncanny effect.

Orchard’s women are often reclining, their limbs distorted and disorganized rather than elegantly posed. The subject of Page Turner (2022), for example, is sprawled across a mattress, facing not the viewer but a mirror affixed to the wall, in which she observes her own hand slipping between her thighs. Rather than skirting sexuality to avoid objectification, Orchard’s figures assert autonomy over their bodies. Mirrors, window panes, picture frames, and silhouetted shadows recur throughout her work and continuously recenter the question of perspective—offering reminders of the myriad ways in which women are perceived. Their often disjointed and disproportionate reflections reveal a disconnect between subject and spectator.

Portrait of Danielle Orchard by Claire Dorn. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Danielle Orchard, Keep Warm, 2023. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarellli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Despite her debt to male modernists, Orchard’s portrayal of the body is distinctly feminine and fresh, reflecting the contemporary experience of being a woman who sees and is seen. Like her Cubist-inspired peers, she renews the century-old style’s power to interrogate our way of looking. “Cubism was revolutionary,” affirmed Atassi. “And it’s still as relevant and revolutionary today.”


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