My art practice is about social conditions, issues that affect women: Anila Quayyum Agha

My art practice is about social conditions, issues that affect women: Anila Quayyum Agha
Photos courtesy of the artist
For Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha, 51, her art is her voice. Agha’s installations were part of the India Art Fair 2017 (Aicon Gallery, New York). Agha creates mixed media works on wide-ranging issues — from global politics and cultural multiplicity to mass media and gender roles.

Agha was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and completed her undergraduate studies at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She moved to the US in December 1999. She started graduate school at the University of North Texas in 2001 and graduated with an MFA in fibre arts in May 2004. She moved to Houston in 2005 for an artist residency at the Contemporary Craft Center, Houston. From there, she moved to Indianapolis, in 2008 to take up an assistant professorship at Herron School of Art & Design/Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Currently, she is an associate professor of drawing at the Herron School of Art & Design at IUPUI.

Talking about her installation All The Flowers Are For Me, she says, “It’s a rebellion, making a place for myself, being heard, but also, in the plural, letting other people be heard, making other people — the audience — realise that women and minority voices need to be heard because there is a lot of good stuff that comes out of them.”   
Agha’s single-room immersive installation, Intersections, is inspired by traditional Islamic architectural motifs. The laser-cut steel lantern conjures the design of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, a historic site of cross-cultural intersection where a thousand years ago Islamic and Western cultures thrived in coexistence.  

In October 2014, Agha won  both the Public and the Jury Award ($200,000 and and $100,000, respectively) at ArtPrize for Intersections. “My intent with this installation was to give substance to mutualism, exploring the binaries of public and private, light and shadow, and static and dynamic,” the artist had said in her statement then. 

Excerpts from an interview: 

THE PUNCH: Let’s begin with your installation, All The Flowers Are For Me, which was part of the India Art Fair 2017 and generated a lot of interest among onlookers. It draws upon Islamic motifs and seems like a chiaroscuro of light and shadow. What does it symbolise? Could you share some of the ideas in your mind when you were working on it? 

ANILA QUAYYUM AGHA: My art practice is about social conditions and dealing with issues that affect women, minorities and not being heard. Intersections and then the subsequent light installations didn’t happen right at the beginning of my art practice. This work came after many years of working very hard to create artwork that was nuanced, subtle and evocative. My interest has always been to create a space where the viewer can look at the work and bring their own experiences into the fold. I don’t know if this actually happens when I make the work, but I try to find some way to connect with people and their experiences, through issues that affect them on a deeper level. For example, women in South Asia are often secondary to the male. And I’m not saying that they may be second-class citizens but they are secondary; their concerns, their well-being and health, their choices in life often come after the male has made the decisions. As a wife and mother my goals and desires will be less important than my husband’s or son. My interest has always been to make work that talks about that place where you’re not being heard or where you’re often the secondary. Intersections and its various derivations is a culmination of many years of working in that space and talking about my experiences as a young woman in Pakistan. Growing up as secondary, my choices were secondary and my place was secondary. It’s a rebellion, making a place for myself, being heard, but also, in the plural, letting other people be heard, making other people — the audience — realise that women and minority voices need to be heard because there is a lot of good stuff that comes out of them.

All the Flowers Are For Me, Red 
Lacquered steel and halogen bulb 
60” x 60”x 60”

THE PUNCH: At what levels do your works engage with a particular faith?

ANILA QUAYYUM AGHA: I’m very interested in religion. It poses many challenges to the world population. It’s also a vehicle through which one can become intolerant and exclusionary. The general public has a tendency to castigate otherness,  and cast aspirations on intent such as who is a true Muslim, Hindu, Jew or Christian or even a true Indian or Pakistani…See what is happening in the United States now.

I find religion to be a central part of culture. I have often thought that I as an artist can’t completely separate religion and culture as it’s an integral part of being alive, being part of a community. Since I was raised in the Islamic faith, even though I don’t practise it, I have a clearer understanding of what it means to be a woman from the Islamic world. 

Having lived in the United States for the last 16 years, and having travelled to various parts of the world often, I find that there are ways to become intolerant. Even here, in the United States, Christianity can erode the humanity of people. And Islam and Hinduism can do the same. It’s very interesting to observe how to exclude people, on the basis of skin colour or religious practice. In my opinion it’s all really tied to economics. If economies are better, people will be okay and will live in harmony in spite of differences. However, hard economic times affecting the well-being of families like shelter, food, healthcare can turn people against neighbours and others because they look different. As an artist, I find that paradigm interesting and it informs my work. That is often how women have been reduced to being secondary. Some religions apparently suggest that women are less...having come from Adam’s rib, etc. Ritual and not doctrine in Islam frowns upon women going out of their homes because men are supposed to provide for them. So, basically taking away a woman’s right to exist as a full person, and suggesting we are incapable of taking care of ourselves or to chart our own lives by confining us under the umbrella of a man. I find that very connected to religious dogma and interpretation. I also think religions are man-made and created for control. If they are truly sent by God, (if there is a God), then the interesting thing is that some men have interpreted it to control the world to their liking. Often, my work is connected to the phenomenon of culture, religion, doctrine and ritual corresponding to belief patterns. I’m interested in creating a liminal space that’s higher and more humane for people to exist within, to create dialogue, to find a moment of compatibility which may not be peace, but something similar… I also think beauty can be quite banal and boring after a while… So, as an artist, I want to create a space that’s constantly evolving, changing, and not always beautiful. In my light installations, while walking through the space, people’s shadows change the environment, making it experiential. Beauty moves, it’s fluid. And I find dialogue about beauty and ugliness fascinating. 

THE PUNCH: Do your experiences as an immigrant and the bi-cultural assimilations also inform your work?

ANILA QUAYYUM AGHA: The sense of displacement never leaves you when you leave your home and move elsewhere… when I left Pakistan, it took me 2-3 years to really get acclimatised to the United States. Even now, there are people who will often correct my English the American way… (Laughs). 

I think loneliness as an immigrant is intense. I often gravitated towards areas where I’d see people who looked like me. Like a lot of Pakistani expatriates will live in neighbourhoods with other Pakistanis or Desis. I often went to desi restaurants to just feel a part of the community. 

I also think in America, there are a lot of loud conversations or sometimes noise between the white and the black communities. People, who are migrants from other nations, like the Far East, South Asians and from both the African and South American continents, their voices are very tiny here in comparison. Racial layers need to be unpacked to further expand the conversation between all races. 

People who emigrated from South Asia to the United States in the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s were more literate. There is an expectation that South Asian people are extremely well-educated and smart. There are a number of South Asian tech billionaires in California. Some years ago, the Nobel Prize was given to a Bangladeshi. The medical industry is dotted with people from the countries in the MANASA region. To sum up, there is an expectation that South Asian people are generally more educated which is helpful to our community. But recent topical events such as the Trump presidency, have unleashed a backlash towards people who look different. And diverse people across the country are being told to go back home. I think globalization, tough economy and wars worldwide are the cause of this sentiment in the West. And people deal with such issues by targeting a particular race or religion and identifying it as the problem. Right now in the USA, immigrants are the problem. “They are taking our jobs so get rid of them.” But diversity, in my opinion, makes things better through new and fresh ideas which help to grow the economy. However, an unfortunate side-effect of the immigration movement in terms of Pakistan or South Asia is the brain drain through the loss of smart and educated people moving to the United States to make better lives for their families. Whilst sadly the political turmoil continues in South Asia. 

The immigrant experience can never fully leave us. In my university where I teach, I’m the only South Asian at the Art school. Even though I speak English perfectly well, albeit with an accent, I have to explain things more clearly. I do believe life can be good if you make it good. Through hard work there is a possibility in the USA to live an above-average life for immigrants and their families. I see people excel here. 

I don’t know how the future with Trump is going to be. But in the last 15-16 years, I have been able to make a good life for myself here. I have been able to make artwork that is interesting, political and social-oriented, without barriers. I wonder if I would have been allowed to do it in Pakistan. Although, now I think about it, there are lots of artists in Pakistan who are doing some amazing work. It’s a bean bag with thousands of beans. You can do whatever with it. (Smiles)

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