Anila Quayyum Agha explores cultural hybridity and socio-political issues through her multimedia practice.
Pakistani-born Anila Quayyum Agha, who recently won both Grand Prizes at ArtPrize 2014 in the United States, explores a variety of socio-political issues experienced through her multicultural upbringing. From installation to embroidered drawings, her conceptual work exposes the commonalities and contradictions of the contemporary human condition.
Anila Quayyum Agha’s cross-disciplinary practice engages with issues of global politics, cultural multiplicity, mass media, and social and gender roles in the contemporary cultural and global landscape. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Agha creates conceptual artworks that are influenced by her rich cultural heritage and Islamic origins.
Agha holds a BFA in Textile Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore and an MFA in Fiber Arts from the University of North Texas. In 2008, she relocated to Indianapolis where she currently teaches Drawing at the Herron School of Art. This year, Agha received the Creative Renewal Fellowship awarded by the Indianapolis Arts Council.
A double award
On 10 October 2014, the ArtPrize Award at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) in Michigan, United States, announced the winners of its sixth edition. Agha won the Grand Prize in both the Public Vote and Juried Awards sections. She gained 398,714 votes from 41,109 individuals, winning the USD200,000 Public Vote Grand Prize for her work Intersections (2013).
Agha was also the recipient of the Juried Grand Prize, also USD200,000, which the jury decided to split equally between Agha and African-American Sonya Clark. Agha has been in the media spotlight since her double award, which marks the first time in the history of ArtPrize that a single artist has won the favour of both the public and the jury alike.
Boundaries and intersections
Her winning artwork Intersections is a room-sized immersive installation, on show at GRAM’s third-floor Wege Gallery until the end of January 2015. It comprises a laser-cut wooden cube with a light source at its centre, which projects shadows of the cube’s patterns onto the ceiling, walls and floor of the gallery. According to Hyperallergic,
A play between the nature of public and private space, the work also challenges viewers by blurring the traditional boundaries of what constitutes an artwork by placing attention as much on the shadows as the sculpted object itself.
Agha, in her statement about the artwork, explains:
In the ‘Intersections’ project, the geometrical patterning in Islamic sacred spaces, associated with certitude is explored in a way that reveals its fluidity. The viewer is invited to confront the contradictory nature of all intersections, while simultaneously exploring boundaries.
Agha aims to give substance to mutualism and explore the dichotomies – or coexisting binaries – of public and private, light and shadow, and static and dynamic. She does this by relying on the “purity and inner symmetry” of the cube and its latticework, as well as on the interpretation of the cast shadows and the viewer’s presence within the public space.
The work was first shown in Indianapolis and its design and its layered, multidimensional variations change with the space in which it is installed and the movement of individuals experiencing the installation.
A woman’s experience of exclusion
Agha’s Intersections draws from her experience as a woman in an Islamic society:
The ‘Intersections’ project takes the seminal experience of exclusion as a woman from a space of community and creativity such as a Mosque and translates the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that have been my experience while growing up in Pakistan.
The wooden frieze is inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain: an 889 AD fortress re-adapted into a palace in the mid-eleventh century by the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, and later converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. Like the Alhambra, in which distinctive Islamic architectural elements are juxtaposed with mid-sixteenth century and later Christian interventions, Intersections brings into coexistence elements from the East and West. It is inspired by Agha’s own experience and perception of her dual upbringing in Pakistan and the United States.
As Agha explains in her statement,
the Alhambra […] was poised at the intersection of history, culture and art and was a place where Islamic and Western discourses, met and co-existed in harmony and served as a testament to the symbiosis of difference. For me, the familiarity of the space visited at the Alhambra Palace and the memories of another time and place from my past, coalesced in creating this project.
Agha extends her exploration to the question that lies at the basis of Islamic art: “the assumptions of geometric design as a form opposite to representational or figurative art.” Islamic art used geometric forms as examples of the pure and the transcendent, as opposed to the organic and human.
The changing and interactive nature of this work questions the rigidity of geometry and its interpretation according to Islamic art. In a contextual milieu where difference and divergence dominate most conversations about the intersection of civilisation, this piece explores the presence of harmonies that do not ignore the shadows, ambiguities and dark spaces between them. Rather, it explores them in novel and unexpected ways.
Agha draws from her life experience on the boundaries of different faiths – Islam and Christianity – and cultures. She explains in an interview with Islamic Art Magazine:
my art is deeply influenced by the simultaneous sense of alienation and transience that informs the migrant experience. […] I explore the deeply entwined political relationships between gender, culture, religion, labor and social codes.
Traditional Islamic craftsmanship
Agha’s oeuvre relies on traditional craftsmanship inspired by Islamic ornamentation. Traditional craft skills were, in Pakistan, the domain of women and provided them with a small degree of independence and recognition. She has used a combination of textile processes – embroidery, wax, dyes, silkscreen printing and sculptural methodologies – to question the gendering of textile work, traditionally a domesticated practice, not considered an art form.
Using craft skills was, therefore, a natural choice for Agha and craft became an inextricable part of her practice, from her installations to her embroidered drawings.
In her statement, she explains:
My experiences in my native country and as an immigrant here in the United States are woven into my work of redefining and rewriting women’s handiwork as a poignant form of creative expression. Using embroidery as a drawing medium, I reveal the multiple layers resulting from the interaction of concept and process and to bridge the gap between modern materials and historical patterns of traditional oppression and domestic servitude. The conceptual ambiguity of the resulting patterns, create an interactive experience in which the onlooker’s subjective experiences of alienation and belonging become part of the piece and its identity.
Agha’s show “Anila Quayyum Agha: My Forked Tongue” at Swope Art Museum (until 13 December 2014) features My Forked Tongue, an installation that deals with cultural multiplicity and crossing barriers. The work comprises uniformly shaped, waxed alphabets – English, Hindi and Urdu – made of hand-cut paper, strung on metallic threads interspersed by glass beads. The artwork references Agha’s multilingual abilities and the stratification of power and class systems, as well as residues of British colonialism in Pakistan’s social interactions.
The artist grew up speaking Urdu, Hindi and English, and also a hybrid of the three, referred to as Pidgin English. Living in Pakistan, as a hybrid of Pakistan and India, and then in the United States, Agha says:
Duality is a fact of life for me. In the Sub-continent, duality between Pakistan and India goes back generations due to their entwined histories.
The installation invites audiences to ponder issues of literacy, cultures and class systems, while its labour intensive nature addresses ideas of craft versus high art, gender roles and the physicality of human presence.
As with all Agha’s installations, this work also places the audience in dialogue with the artwork and the space it occupies. The alphabet strings create a barrier within the space, hampering navigation and “suggesting the difficulty and restrictions faced in crossing boundaries between cultures globally.”
The silence of the female condition
For “Sacred Silence” (2014) at the Harrison Center for the Arts, Indianapolis, along with a version of Intersections, Agha presented an installation of mixed media drawings, entitled Rights of Passage. The series of square mixed media pieces incorporates a variety of repeating radial patterns and images that reflect designs on the graves of women at the Makli necropolis near the Indus River Delta in Pakistan and are derived from garment decorations and jewellery.
The work addresses the condition of women in Pakistan, whose lives are essentially ‘silent’, as Agha says: “Their lives are light and ephemeral. They come silently and leave silently.” As she tells Islamic Arts Magazine,
This piece is homage to those women, the patterns paying tribute to their existence in both reality and memory. The pieces in the installation evoke a memoriam for women and their personal narratives, thus creating beautiful but silent stories within the very essence of the work.
In “Quicksand: Landscape of the Feminine” (2014) at Gallery 924, Indianapolis, there was also a series of drawings – such as Sand Dunes, Delta and Silence – made from dyes, wax, coffee and tea stains, which invoke the history and residual memory of the feminine and domestic. The works explore how social and gender-based issues result from the concepts constructed by history, traditions and contemporary society.
Suffering in human history
Murmuration I (2014), also shown at Gallery 924, is a site-specific installation made of honey locust thorns and T-pins that form a landscape-like design on a white wall. Agha draws from her personal memories of the wild berries thorny bushes in Lahore, as well as the collective experience of war and natural disasters in human history, as she expresses in the artwork statement:
We have witnessed the erosion to our planet in the form of human displacement causing poverty and strife on a global scale via television and other media. In positioning the onlooker in a space of confrontation, I want to evoke a surfeit of visual sound proposing the low and keening hum of suffering associated with human history.
Addressing the issue of manmade disasters and the inability of the majority to realise and acknowledge their proximity, the work relies on the exploration of threat and touch:
The viewer is confronted by the dichotomy of a swarm of thorns reminiscent of the bomb-laden drones as well as the murmuration of birds. The contrast is at once threatening and benign, encompassing and open, soft and jagged.
There is a play between proximity and distance, danger and safety, and the installation aims to question the mixed feelings that confront us as we experience disaster on television and the Internet.
[…] this piece is provocation to consider the new demands placed on our consciousness by the witnessing of danger that almost touches us, and yet does not quite penetrate our consciousness.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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- Turning tradition on its head: Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi – interview – May 2014 – Pakistani husband and wife artist duo talk about their connection with the miniature painting tradition
- 7 influential women artists from Asia-Pacific – March 2014 – Art Radar pays tribute to 7 women artists that have made an impact on the global art stage
- 11 influential South Asian neo-miniaturists – January 2014 – Art Radar profiles some of the most influential artists who have been inspired by South Asian miniature art working today
- 4 Pakistani artists making art out of violence – December 2013 – Art Radar profiles three Pakistani artists whose works respond to the sufferings and the devastation provoqued by a decade of violence
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