With Intersections, Anila Quayyum Agha creates instant architecture in an empty room. A laser-cut steel cube suspended from the ceiling and illuminated by a single bulb casts intricate shadows across the walls and the people who enter the gallery. The artist set out to create a sacred space where people of all races, genders and religions could feel welcome. She was motivated by her experiences of being excluded from mosques and other cultural venues as a woman growing up in Lahore, Pakistan.
Intersections won the prestigious ArtPrize competition in 2014, in both the public and juried categories, making Agha the first artist to hold this distinction.
In 1999, she moved to the U.S. and later earned a master’s degree in fiber arts from the University of North Texas. Now an associate professor of drawing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, she recently spoke with us about her work, navigating complicated cultural boundaries in Pakistan and the volatile U.S. presidential race.
Why paint the room yellow?
I have seen my work in four locations before, all with a white background. As an artist, I thought it could be interesting to investigate what we could do differently. With the opening at PEM in February, knowing it would be so cold and dreary at that time, I was very interested in bringing sunlight into the room. Also, in Islamic architecture there is often a lot of gold and so I was trying to incorporate that into the color selection as well.
How much does the cube weigh?
It weighs about 550 to 600 pounds because it’s laser-cut steel and has powder coating on it. The crate weighs about 100 pounds as well, so the total weight when it is moving is about 700 pounds.
You have said that you strive for a knife-edge quality in your work. What does that mean?
I am often brought to tears when confronted by extreme beauty and the knife-edge quality of deep sorrow and extreme joy simultaneously. It’s what happens when somebody close to you dies who had been in great pain. It is a relief for that person to be free of pain, but there is sadness because you are going to miss that person. Or when you see a beautiful sunset but suddenly feel very small. Those are the moments I find particularly poignant and I strive for in my art.
How does teaching about art influence your own art?
As a teacher you are always an eternal student. The students teach me a lot and I teach them a lot, and it’s sort of a give and take. The other thing I find so fascinating is the diversity that the students bring to the table, both racial and economic diversity. In my artwork I am dealing with a new way of looking at the world and different cultures, so using that knowledge from interacting with my students helps me to get there. It allows me to see multiple perspectives and bring those various threads into my own work.
In a previous interview, you were quoted as saying “Art saved my life.’
It sure did. In Pakistan, I was extremely poor attending a segregated high school for women. While I was there I realized that I didn’t really like being in that segregated environment or the subject matter. When I was 8 or 9, one of my teachers had seen a drawing I had done in watercolor of the mountains surrounding us and said to me, “You are going to be an artist;’ and that sort of sat in my head for a long time. In geography class, I used to spend hours and hours drawing maps and that was the best time of my life. I think all of those things came together to make me interested in being at an art school. I applied to the National College of Arts in Lahore without the permission of my parents.
My sister gave me enough money to take a rickshaw there and I remember going alone, something young women did not often do at such an early age. When I found out I got in, I was thrilled. Art gave me a purpose and it gave me the desire to explore, and also independence that would allow me to be more than somebody’s wife or mother. It gave me the drive to fight against becoming a woman who did not have an inner life, or the ability to make choices for myself.
What was your parents’ reaction to your art school acceptance?
My mother was worried about my reputation because people point fingers a lot, especially at women. During my adolescence and early adulthood, it was all about perceptions. On the other hand, she was very progressive in her thinking. She wanted me to continue to study and go far and she hated for me to be dependent on a man. It was a very mixed kind of situation. You had to walk through the mud without getting a drop of mud on you, if you can use that analogy. How you navigate these boundaries is a theme that has run through out my entire art practice. That’s why you see, for example, that I use embroidery in my drawings. Embroidery isn’t expected on paper, but I do it because I feel like you have to cross boundaries.
Are you following the presidential race?
It’s really unfortunate how fractured politics are here in this country, but I think it’s also very true of other parts of this world. It pains me to think about what some of the presidential candidates are saying about outsiders, like refugees and immigrants, Muslims and Hispanics. The United States is like an interesting collage because there are so many people from different parts of the world coming here to bring their stories. To me, we are shooting ourselves in the foot when we say we don’t want outsiders. In my opinion, the places that are often the most vibrant are the ones that are the most diverse. Why are we so shortsighted? I don’t get it.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY MANAGING EDITOR SUSAN FLYNN AND CONDENSED FOR PUBLICATION.
Intersections: Anita Quayyum Agha closes October 16, 2016.