Anila Quayyum Agha’s art elevates Islamic mosaics into architecture shot through with light-scattering patterns across walls.
“Mysterious Inner Worlds” marks her first solo exhibition at the University of New Mexico Art Museum. The Pakistani-born artist produced the large-scale light installation “Intersections (2014).” The exhibit also includes the debut of her sculpture “Steel Garden (Red).”
Agha’s work ranges from mammoth installations to intricate embroidered drawings. She explores social and gender roles, global politics and cultural multiplicity, creating her own sacred spaces emblazoned with pattern and open to everyone.
Agha’s fascination with light began in her native Pakistan. She marveled at the play of light inside nearby Islamic ruins away from the traffic and noise of the city of Lahore.
“I loved the silence because I could imagine things there,” she said. “I’m a storyteller in my head. But now I tell stories visually.”
The artist came to the U.S. in 1999.
“I came here and 9/11 happened and things kind of went to hell for people who looked like me,” she said in a telephone interview from her studio in Augusta, Georgia, where she is a Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta University. “People racially profiled me. School children harassed my son in Denton and Dallas (Texas.) I found it difficult to make friends.”
Agha had enjoyed creating paper cut-outs in school, so she began slicing and painting shapes on wax paper.
“I was trying to create these healing spaces at the time,” she said.
The artist earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore and her master’s degree from the University of North Texas.
“I was often told to make work that was more reflective of the U.S.,” she said. But she wanted to elevate women’s work; her mother had taught her to sew and included her in her quilting circles.
Now associate professor of drawing at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University, she traveled to Spain, where she was mesmerized by the Alhambra of Granada, one of the most famous monuments of Islamic architecture in the world. Geometric patterns, vegetal motifs and Arabic inscriptions ornament the walls.
“That was the catalyst,” Agha said. “It felt like I was in my own country. The Moors built the Alhambra as a living space.
“And I wasn’t being chased out because I was a woman,” she continued. “Pakistan doesn’t allow women into the mosques to pray. It felt like a spiritual place and yet I was welcomed there.”
The explosion of patterns remained with her.
“It made me realize I wanted to create something like this,” Agha said. “I wanted to create a space that doesn’t racially profile, that doesn’t religiously profile or profile you because of your gender or your sexual preference.”
The exhibition centerpiece is the award-winning “Intersections,” a large steel sculpture pierced by geometric and floral patterns inspired by traditional Islamic architecture. Suspended from the ceiling and lit from within by a single light source, it casts shadows across the floor, ceiling and walls, making every inch of the gallery a part of the artwork.
Agha created the patterns from photographs she took at the Alhambra, then streamlined them to her own aesthetic.
She wants viewers to recognize where she came from and, at the same time, create a sense of community.
“For much of my life I have been excluded, so I want to make and create work that brings people in,” she said. “My mother used to hold these sewing circles. I would listen to the women talk as they worked on quilts together. I think that’s where the idea of community came from. Women hold the fabric of life.”
Agha will spend this coming summer in Washington, D.C. conducting research for future projects as a recipient of the Smithsonian Fellowship in the Arts.