Anila Quayyum Agha is unquestionably one of the most illustrious and distinguished artists of our country. Her work has been exhibited in over seventeen solo and fifty group shows and has won several awards and grants. She won two prizes for her entry titled ‘Intersections’ at ArtPrize 2014 in the international art competition held in Michigan; the ArtPrize 2014 Public Vote Grand Prize and the Juried Grand Prize in a tie with Sonya Clark. She graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan, in 1989, where she studied Textile Design. After her MFA in Fiber Arts from the University of North Texas, United States, Agha moved to Indianapolis in 2008 to teach at the Herron School of Art, where she is currently the Associate professor of Drawing.
Through drawings, paintings and large-scale mixed-media installations, Anila Quayyum Agha comments on social and gender roles, global politics, cultural multiplicity, and mass media. Living within different faiths (Islam and Christianity) and cultures (Pakistan and the United States), has deeply influenced and inspired her artistic practice. Her work delves into the immigrant experience of alienation and transience and creates a social experience that challenges one to critique patriarchal societies. Agha’s work is in the collection of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, India.
The following interview gives us a deeper insight into her profoundly ingenious and cultivated Pakistani-American identity, (especially) as an international cross-disciplinary artist.
RJ: What inspired you to become a visual artist? What were the circumstances and influences that shaped the beginning of your career as a visual artist?
AQA: In Murree at my boarding school, I loved the weekly art classes. In 4th grade, I did a watercolor drawing of the landscape with the setting sun visible from the big picture window. I remember one of the teachers was very encouraging and commented that I was destined to be an artist which inspired me, although at the time I had no real concept of what the word ‘artist’ meant. Also, my mom had good facility with drawing animals and birds, which used to amuse us during my childhood. She had the desire to be an interior designer, which was squashed by too many children and familial responsibilities. And my father, an engineer, often designed his friends’ houses as a creative outlet. I didn’t have a professional artistic role model to emulate but I think I was aware I enjoyed working with my hands. I believe the four years I spent at the National College of Arts in Lahore made me realize that I was happiest when making art even though money was extremely tight, and my family was not too happy regarding the co-ed and artistic nature of NCA, not so much because of my family’s conservatism but more about what the cultural ramifications could be for my future.
During my undergraduate studies at NCA, I held many day jobs including modeling assignments for television and newspapers. The experiences as a model based on financial need brought the realization that the Pakistani culture supported extremely superficial roles of beauty and sexuality rather than content development for its female population. According to societal norms, I felt confined with no active role outside of my home. In retrospect, that time period first initiated the beginnings of my feminist intellect and a desire for a more just society. From that realization, further development of my identity and aesthetic skills ultimately resulted in developing a strong sense of an inner self, work ethic & discipline and a desire to succeed. In the United States, the lessons learned in Pakistan, along with determination and an abiding desire to disseminate my ideas allowed me to continue as an artist despite tremendous difficulties. As a naturalized US citizen, I have chosen to live in the US. My decision to immigrate was not made lightly, as the loss of family and friends was a traumatic experience. Through the adversity experienced over the last nineteen years I believe I have gained a clear sense of self-worth, which has made my life richer and full of possibilities. Having said that, I continue to live in an in-between place that often makes me an outsider both in Pakistan and the US.
RJ: How does your work explore social and gender roles and how does it comment on global politics?
AQA: Within my art practice, exploring the perceived cultural and social polarities such as the masculine-feminine, public-private, definite-amorphous, and religious-secular permits me to delve into controversial topics that reflect upon topical themes of cultural identity, global politics, and mass media and social/gender roles. Experiences of loss and shifting identities inform my artwork, allowing me to explore social and gender-based issues within our contemporary societies. Mixing reflections and shadows with solid forms and often transposing the resulting affect, my artwork aspires simultaneously to be perceptually soothing and conceptually challenging. To clarify, my work is not about religions, but contemplation on the nature of boundaries and alienation, and on the power of dialogue to transcend the barriers of gender, race, religion, and culture that prevent the true intersections and exchanges between cultures.
RJ: What are your biggest influences as a visual artist?
AQA: Many people have influenced me over the years. First were Professor Salima Hashmi and Lala Rukh, art professors at NCA. Going on feminist rallies with Lala Rukh and her cohorts was clearly the first step in finding a voice. Seeing abundant artwork and meeting interesting people including her husband – the smart and funny Shoaib Hashmi – marked my visits to Mrs. Hashmi’s home. At their home I was introduced to many intellectuals of the Pakistani artistic community who were open minded and respectful towards ideas and choices for both men and women. Additionally, I had a friend in college, Sabina Gillani, who influenced me, not so much because she was an artist but because her family was tremendously supportive of her. Visiting her family opened my eyes to possibilities in my own life and the prospect of creating a life that included an independent mind and intellectual stimulation. Interaction with her family brought the realization that I did not need to fit into a pre-determined role limited to child bearing and domestication but could design a more fulfilling role for myself. This realization was key to my growth.
Over the years I have been intensely influenced by female artists like Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, Ann Wilson, Shireen Neshat and Chiharu Shioto. Their work is beautifully conceived and crafted. They have not shied away from looking at controversial present and past histories. I have also found wonderful insights from exploring the works of Antony Gormly, Olafur Eliasson, Raphael Lozano Hemmer, Anish Kapoor, and Francis Alys. One of my all-time favorite artists, Ellsworth Kelly, has taught me that elegance and beauty need not be scorned. Last but not least, artists from Pakistan, like Rashid Rana, Quddus Mirza, Shahzia Sikandar, Nausheen Saeed, Hamra Abbas, Waqas Khan, Imran Qureshi and so many more are making tremendous work. It gladdens my heart.
RJ: How do you celebrate cultural multiplicity in your studio work and in your life in general?
AQA: I use contrasts and commonalities within cultures such as Pakistan and the USA, to understand and then articulate through my art my place in the human artistic history. The frail and ephemeral reminders of the recent or distant past intrigue me, or the impressions left behind by different cultures, traditions and more. My artistic process requires that I experience myriad cultures through travel, and view architecture, arts & crafts and be enervated to create art rooted with a socially mindful purpose. In the last nineteen years, I have added multiple dimensions to my original point of view, through travel and by changing locations. Daily experiences and interactions inspire me. Often disjointed ideas and thoughts coupled with world events may give me a direction. The ideas ferment in my mind from a few months up to a year before I actually shape them into actual artwork. The process is fluid and I crisscross between current work and ideas for future projects. There is no hard and fast rule that I follow but I immerse myself in experiencing my surroundings fully, human interactions and concepts through seeing deeply and with wonder.
RJ: How do you make decisions about material and medium in your work?
AQA: As a cross-disciplinary artist, I create mixed media drawings and sculptural installations. 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 use combinations of textile processes along with sculptural methodologies to reveal and question the gender of textile/feminine work as inherently domesticated and excluded from being considered an art form. I select materials such as steel and wood in my sculptural works to show delicacy and lightness, or embroidery, paper, metallic thread and beads as mediums in my drawings. I work with materials that are often transparent or ethereal. The material choices appear fragile, but are often resilient, hardy, and even stubborn when cut, pushed, pulled, scraped, or sewn together.
I try to bridge the gap between modern materials and historical patterns and continue to explore complexity in my artistic practice through additional media, processes and technology.
Starting with familiar Islamic motifs, that, in due course become re-interpretations of the original designs, allow me to infuse a contemplative focus suggestive of the underlying order of both the cosmos and the natural world through symmetries found in nature. These familiar Islamic geometric motifs, due to their reproductions in public environments, allow me to excavate and re-interpret these motifs from the everyday and elevate them to the extraordinary, to reveal the complexities of symbiosis between genders, cultures and civilizations and the amorphous borders between them all. My installation projects use light and pattern along with the palpability of reflection to question the assumptions of geometric design as a form of the pure and transcendent and thus opposite to representational art. The shadows cast in all directions by the light spilling through the sculpture’s cutout surfaces work magically for me, creating a dynamic transformation in the space in tandem with the itinerant movement of the audience.
RJ: What role does the immediate space/location/ city play in nurturing your creative process?
AQA: Living and working in Indianapolis has been pleasant for me. It’s a mid-sized city in the mid-west of United States and often falls in the shadow of Chicago, which is one of the biggest metropolis in the country. However, since there is not as much to do here like in New York City or Chicago, I work more in my studio which allows for more time to conceive, create, make mistakes and rectify those mistakes without anyone being the wiser. Also, the American Midwest is a fairly bland environment with limited racial and slightly more economic diversity. However, I am often able to visit other locales while traveling for art exhibitions or artist talks that help to refresh my mind and to observe contradictions in the cultural environment which ultimately help with new work.
RJ: How do you seek out opportunities and cultivate a collector base? How do you navigate the art world?
AQA: Navigating the art world is still foreign to me. I don’t have any facility with sales and do not even try but let the professionals work on my behalf. I do actively work to arrange exhibitions and work on expanding my network globally.
RJ: How does university teaching feed your visual art practice? How do you balance your life as an academic and as a studio practitioner?
AQA: Art and culture in my opinion is the heart of any community; and education in the arts helps train compassionate, self-aware, civic-minded people. I further believe teaching is a noble profession providing an important service for the world community and I, for one, am intensely committed to teaching and helping train our future generations. Teaching is an extension of my own creative practice and life experiences both here in the United States and in my native country, Pakistan. I teach because I am an eternal student myself and have tremendous respect and love for learning. I have striven to distinguish myself as an artist-teacher capable of interacting with complex communities and working toward common goals.
RJ: As an educator, how have you developed or altered your teaching strategies to contribute to the expanding definitions of art?
AQA: The faculty and staff at Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana University welcomed me when I relocated to Indianapolis in 2008. Becoming a part of the larger community within Indianapolis and the state allowed me to contribute in meaningful ways through teaching and working within the arts community. I feel it is my responsibility to teach tolerance and familiarize my students to a larger world outside their purview. This circular pursuit of tolerance and racial/ social justice affects my own work positively. I am fully devoted to my school and students. The vastness of my teaching role and the students keep me young and finely tuned to current ideas.
RJ: Do you adhere to a certain set of values or belief system for your professional practice?
AQA: I believe an artist’s role is to give a satisfyingly integrated expression to both our physical and intellectual dimensions, making work that is embedded with a sense of purpose, and is current and inspiring.
RJ: What are the most crucial skills or aptitudes to sustain a career as a visual artist, in your opinion?
AQA: Each one of us is born with strengths and challenges. I think we should begin by building upon our strengths to create an artistic vision, continue to make artwork, and find opportunities to show one’s work consistently. Understanding the conceptual underpinnings of ones’ artwork helps to elevate the output instead of becoming derivative of past successes. I think having manageable goals in the beginning help to anchor us in our chosen endeavors. One of the important things in my opinion is to have short and long-term goals. Planning strategically to make the short-term goals further the long-term goals while simultaneously evaluating the relevance of the artwork is vital. Thinking critically and strategically is tremendously important allowing for the possibility of dialogue when confronted by critics, art professionals or curators. Forming a network of people who are supporters of your work over time, needs to be expanded to include curators, critics, collectors and academics. I try to always be grateful and smile whilst trying not to bad mouth anyone even if they may have wronged me in the past, as the art world is really small, and everything circles back to you. I have learned to think of chaos rather than malice as the driving force governing people’s lives. Last but not least, I try to be patient and work steadily and consistently to make my dreams come true.
RJ: Much of your work uses simple forms, but you connect these forms with significant, challenging issues and current events. How did you arrive at this combination?
AQA: Creating abstract artwork requires ingenuity to apprehend and reveal issues and connections to world events. And artists I think can no longer work in isolation but need to participate in the contemporary environment to make sense of history in the making. I enjoy simplicity in works I admire. But simplicity to me does not mean simple mindedness. Layered, complex ideas in experiential form can provide enduring influence to an audience. I realized during graduate school that as a woman of color, my art would have influences and ideas that may not be easily accessible to a western audience. Thus, the integration of experiential methodology in my artwork has allowed for more expansive practices. I also think content creates longevity within my work, allowing connections to the conceptual underpinnings and concerns that are central to me.
RJ: You often use delicate patterns to make powerful, robust work. How do you think about the concept of beauty in art?
AQA: During graduate school, I was further familiarized to the concept of the banality of beauty in western arty discourse. However, having been raised in the east, I was familiar with the concept of the sublime/ spiritual in the presence of beauty also. I suppose, to please my professors I tried to eschew my natural inclination to make objects that were beautiful in concept and craft. After graduation and with experience I decided to be true to myself, as I believe good art often is the outcome of brutal honesty. And now I see the tide changing to accommodate beauty within the larger art world. I think, it may also be due to the fact that there is a slightly better representation of diverse global artists who do not belong to the euro-western traditions and an increasing visibility of under-represented art historical scholarship, which is bringing a confluence of ideas that are more expansive and possibly more inclusive, hence expanding the standards/ideas of beauty.
I think, creating work that provides contrasts within the lived experiences, such as male/female, light/ heavy, fragile/ strong, light/dark can help tap into encounters with the sublime. I also think that such encounters allow for a deeper influence than passively viewing art objects. I think, due to the fluidity of life, experiencing art or any beautiful encounter allows for a deeper influence, which may continue to enrich ones’ life far into the future.