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Intersections | © Anila Agha
Intersections | © Anila Agha
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Meet The Artist, Anila Quayyum Agha

Picture of Samantha Beckett
Updated: 24 April 2017
Recently featured at Rice University in Houston, and now traveling around the world, is an art installation by Anila Quayyam Agha. This installation is captivating and exciting and each piece captures aspects of Islamic culture. Light and shadow bring interiors of sacred holy places to life right here in Houston. The installation will be on display at galleries around the world in the coming year. Meet Anila and learn about her life as an artist through this Culture Trip interview.
Intersections | © Anila Agha
Intersections | © Anila Agha

How did your ‘Intersections’ exhibit come to be?

A combination of serendipitous things took place – a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain and a grant from Indiana University allowed for the project to be conceived. My goal as with all my work is to invite the viewer to confront the contradictory nature of all intersections, while simultaneously exploring boundaries. Through this project my goal was to explore the binaries of public and private, light and shadow, and static and dynamic by relying on the purity and inner symmetry of geometric design, and the interpretation of the cast shadows.

In the city of Lahore, where I grew up, the mosque was not only a place of worship, but also the repository of the public art form. Thousands of mosques were spread all over the city, filled with bouquets of calligraphic writing and geometric symmetry that embrace pilgrims five times a day. But like the millions of women in Lahore, there was no space for me in any of these mosques, the dictates of culture relegating us all to praying at home. It is this seminal experience of being excluded from a space of community and creativity that resonated with me when I recently visited Moorish Spain. There I experienced the historic site of the Alhambra, and to my amazement discovered the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that have been my experience while growing up in Pakistan. My installation emulates patterns from the Alhambra, which 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.

Cumulatively, this installation uses light, and pattern along with the palpability of reflection to question the assumptions of geometric design as a form opposite to representational or figurative art. The source of this question lies at the crux of Islamic art, which used the geometric form as an example of the pure and transcendent, as opposed to the organic and human. The clean and definite lines and their avowed distance from figurative nature of idolatry aim literally to direct spiritual consciousness away from the ambiguity and corruption of the lived form into the certitude of purity. In exploring the interpretive capacities of the geometric motif, I question this dichotomy that lies at the center of Islamic art and its departure from the human form. In exploring the varieties of interpretation of geometric design, I show the interplay of nature and the created design and its impact on those that perceive it. In this way I question the premise at the heart of Islamic art that the certainty of geometry and non-figurative design, like the certainty of religious text and edict, is not vulnerable or open to myriad interpretations.

In addition to questioning the assumptions behind the geometric or non-figurative form as certain and static, this piece also provokes an investigation into questions of authenticity, which are central to the post-colonial condition. The intertwining of light and shadow, original and derivative, are at the core of the various renditions of the pattern. They mirror the post-colonial quest for originality and purity an ultimately circular geometric pursuit where primary form can only be imagined and never really captured. The geometric motifs at the center of this pattern are familiar to Islamic audiences around the world because of their reproductions in mosques, monuments and public spaces. In excavating these motifs from the everyday and the humdrum, I also intend to elevate and anoint them as expressions of the ordinary that when attended to and explored, reveal the complexities of symbiosis between cultures and civilizations and the amorphous borders between them. In a contextual milieu where difference and divergence dominate most conversations about the intersection of civilization, this piece explores the presence of harmonies that do not ignore the shadows, ambiguities and dark spaces between them but rather explore them in novel and unexpected ways.

Has culture always played a big role in the artwork you create”

My personal history and memories of growing up in Pakistan as a woman where cultural traditions and not common sense drive behavior patterns are a part of my narrative and thus a part of my art making process. Having lived on the boundaries of different faiths such as Islam and Christianity, and in cultures like Pakistan and the USA, my art is deeply influenced by the simultaneous sense of alienation and transience that informs the migrant experience. This consciousness of knowing what is markedly different about the human experience also bears the gift of knowing its core commonalities and it is these tensions and contradictions that I try to embody in my artwork. Through the use of a variety of media, from large sculptural installations to embroidered drawings I explore the deeply entwined political relationships between gender, culture, religion, labor and social codes. In my work I have used combinations of textile processes such as embroidery, wax, dyes, and silk-screen printing along with sculptural methodologies to reveal and question the gendering of textile work as inherently domesticated and excluded from being considered an art form. 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, a theme also represented in the large projects I have created over the years, create an interactive experience in which the onlooker’s subjective experiences of alienation and belonging become part of the piece and its identity.

Intersections | © Anila Agha
Intersections | © Anila Agha

What’s next in your professional career?

It’s been a busy year. I am currently working on drawings and a second iteration of an installation titled All The Flowers Are For Me. I am also participating in the Art Fair in Abu Dhabi in November 2015. In the studio I am finishing off a few commissioned works and working on making a new body of work for a solo show at the Aicon Art Gallery in NYC in 2016. I also just shipped Intersections to the National Sculpture Museum of Valladolid, Spain where it is being exhibited in a group show with amazing contemporary artists.

What artwork you would like to have in your living room?

One art piece each from Shireen Neshat, Chiharu Shiota, Ellsworth Kelly and Antony Gormly.

What is your favorite museum or gallery”

Tate Modern, MOMA, Reina Sophia and the Contemporary Art Museum in Barcelona.

How would you describe your artistic style in 80 characters?

Anila’s artistic practice explores politics, cultural multiplicity and social and gender roles in our current global scenario through drawings and installations.

Historical Films or Romance”

Historical films

Coffee or Tea”


Modern of Renaissance Art”


Paris or Lisbon”


Classical or Jazz”


PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi”

Powerpoint/ Keynote