Interviews

ArtPrize Winner Anila Quayyum Agha Talks Sacred Spaces and Religion

Anila Quayyum Agha's "Intersections" at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Intersections” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (all photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Last Friday, Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha won both the popular and juried vote at ArtPrize for her installation “Intersections.” It was the first time in the history of the Grand Rapids-based competition that an artist reaped top honors in both categories.

“Intersections” consists of an intricately laser-cut box hung at the center of the gallery. Lit from within, it casts shadows on the surrounding walls, immersing the viewer in the wondrous geometry of the Alhambra. The medieval Moorish palace is kindred to the mosques of Agha’s homeland — sacred spaces of prayer, discourse, and creativity that she, as a girl growing up in Lahore, was excluded from.

Like the patterning of the box itself, the concept behind the work is complex and multi-faceted. In her artist’s statement, Agha writes that the Alhambra was once a place where “Islamic and Western discourses met and co-existed in harmony,” serving as a “testament to the symbiosis of difference.” She also writes that the work questions a premise at the heart of Islamic art, which is the notion that non-figurative design exists apart from nature and earthly life, and as such is not “vulnerable or open to myriad interpretations.” Agha’s installation becomes an inclusive space, wherein visitors of any color and stripe, holding any opinion or belief, can feel welcome.

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ArtPrize visitors in the gallery with Anila Quayyum Agha's "Intersections" at the Grand Rapids Art Museum
ArtPrize visitors in the gallery with Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Intersections” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Laura C. Mallonee: Congratulations on winning ArtPrize! As some of our readers may not be familiar with you, can you share a little about your background?

Anila Quayyum Agha: Bare facts — I was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan in 1965 and completed my undergraduate studies at the National College of Arts, Lahore. I moved to the USA in Dec 1999. I started graduate school at the University of North Texas in 2001 and graduated with an MFA in fiber arts in May 2004. I moved to Houston in 2005 for an artist residency at the Contemporary Craft Center, Houston and taught university courses to supplement my income. From there I moved to Indianapolis, in 2008 to take up an assistant professorship at Herron School of Art & Design/ IUPUI. Currently I am an associate professor of drawing at the Herron School of Art & Design at IUPUI.

LCM: Your artist statement says “Intersections” draws on “the seminal experience of exclusion as a woman from a space of community and creativity such as a mosque,” which you experienced growing up in Pakistan. Can you explain that?

AQA: Praying at a mosque is not forbidden religiously per se, like decreed in the Quran. In Pakistan men simply don’t allow their women to go to a public mosque to pray, as they are deeply concerned about their own personal and family honor. (You may have heard of honor killings that result in women inadvertently soiling a man’s honor.) It is also not safe for women without male escorts to be in public spaces. Thus, to ensure personal safety women are delegated to praying at home which has culturally become the norm rather than the exception.

Living in Pakistan for me during my formative years was about navigating unsafe public spaces. My earlier memories include trying to become invisible and sometimes androgynous thus to avoid being targeted by the lascivious male gaze. In my teens, due to financial need, I modeled for print and TV. That put me directly in the public gaze, which made me very uncomfortable. However it allowed for the continuity of my education, resulting in my staking a place as a woman artist and ensured self-expression for my personal sanity and survival. Art saved my life. I make work about cultural and social issues affecting women in patriarchal societies and this allows me to have a voice.

Another view of Agha's "Intersections"
Another view of Agha’s “Intersections”

LCM: “Intersections” recreates the Alhambra — an ornate Muslim palace first built as a fortress in 889 then renovated by a Moorish emir in the 11th century — as an inclusive sacred space. How did you feel when you visited?

AQA: The Alhambra Palace is a symbol of a glorious past for the Islamic world. In Pakistan, children grow up being aware of it as a beacon. In 2011, I received a New Frontier travel grant from Indiana University to visit Spain. I traveled to the south of Spain and worked my way from Seville to Cordoba via Granada. In Granada, I visited the Jewish quarters, the flamenco/gypsy enclaves, and then the Alhambra.

Maybe it was a romantic moment in my mind where I saw this architectural wonder as being central to the Eastern and Western discourse conducted peacefully back in the Middle Ages. I wanted to recreate the feeling of awe and wonder that I saw on the faces of the tourists at the palace. I myself felt peace and quiet descend on me, which may have been due to the fact that I was traveling alone and speak limited Spanish, and I had nothing much to eat other than energy bars.

LCM: Being primarily a textile artist, how did you discover the visual language of wood, light, shadow as a way to express these ideas?  

AQA: While growing up, I used to observe my mother trying to do interior design. She didn’t have professional training in the field and sometimes the results were a hit or a miss. Coming home from school was like coming to a different house where the windows and doors moved like musical chairs. She also had an interest in woodcarvings and subscribed to intricately carved Victorian walnut wood furniture in a Pakistani style. When conceptualizing the project, I remembered the curved dining table with beautiful carvings and thought it would be interesting to use wood. It gives a look of strength but is ultimately quite fragile too in my opinion.

The grant from Indiana University for the New Frontiers program required that the funding would be used in the development of innovative works and should display potential for having a significant impact on one’s field or chart a new trajectory in one’s scholarly, creative or artistic development. I decided to use laser technology with the project to enable me to experiment with speed and accuracy as well as to increase the size of the project.

LCM: Out of curiosity, do you ascribe to any particular religion? 

AQA: I don’t subscribe to any organized religion. I believe in ethics, compassion, tolerance, and generosity. All are hallmarks for world religions. I am often brought to tears when confronted by extreme beauty, and like the knife-edge quality of deep sorrow and extreme joy simultaneously. This may be due to growing up in a country where I often felt excluded due to my gender. I like to strive for that knife-edge in my own artwork.

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