"I won the ArtPrize the same week that Malala won the Nobel Prize," Anila Quayyum Agha says with a mix of pride and restraint, sitting across from this reporter at the kitchen table at her near-Eastside home. The walls are lined with work by her students — Agha is an associate professor of drawing at Herron; she earned tenure last year — alongside brushed metal wall pieces by Steve Prachyl, her engineer and fiancé, who's puttering around upstairs while consuming epic amounts of biscotti. One of the patterned cubes from her Intersections series hangs from the ceiling; she says she turns it on at night, that the shadow patterns the piece projects on the wall are soothing.
"But I think she deserves it more than I do," she continues. "What a brave young woman." Agha, born in 1965 in Lahore, Pakistan, refers, of course, to Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old Pakistani activist who survived an attempted assassination by the Taliban to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. And if we'll allow Agha her moment of humility, the fact is that she won an unprecedented prize last year as well, becoming, on Oct. 10, 2014, the first person to win both the public and juried grand prize at the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based art competition ArtPrize. She received $200,000 for winning the public prize outright, and another $100,000 for splitting the juried prize with another artist.
Agha won those awards for Intersections, which consists, in part, of a wooden cube (6.5 feet on each side) inscribed with a laser-cut pattern inspired by those found in the Alhambra, a palace and fortress in Granada, Spain, built while the region was ruled by a Moorish dynasty. "At last, lightbox art which actually looks beautiful," said a commenter to the site designboom.com of the piece — and indeed, when a single light bulb inside the cube is flicked on, the piece projects a complex lattice of floral and geometric patterns on whatever surfaces happen to be in the area. The piece brings to mind the Kaaba at Mecca, though Agha hopes that such a comparison won't shut down the interpretive faculties of either believers in or opponents of Islam.
If Agha were to star in an action film based on her life's story, we might call it Escape from Patriarchy. And it's in that fight against the status quo in the subcontinent — where sexism runs rampant and the social order is violently enforced — that she feels a kinship with Malala. She grew up with something of a double consciousness, working as a fashion model to put herself through art school, witnessing active feminists at school from a distance, not yet ready to join in the fray of marches and protest. She moved to the U.S. with her family in November 1999 after her son and then-husband were abducted (then quickly released) by armed highwaymen. (They had been planning to relocate for some time — her husband was a U.S. national — but that violent encounter hastened the move.)
Agha earned an MFA in Fiber Arts at the University of North Texas, where she decided to double down on making beautiful work when she was told, essentially, to go in a more subversive, uglier direction. She realized she could subvert the established order not by making aggressive work, but by reclaiming techniques traditionally ascribed to women. "In a sense, I'm trying to elevate this whole domesticated element of the thread and the needle, which has usually been used to denote women, putting craft into dialogue with fine art," Agha told NUVO in 2012, when her installation My Forked Tongue, which consists of letters from the English, Urdu and Hindi alphabets strung on metallic threads and suspended from the ceiling, was on display at an installation art pavilion temporarily constructed in Old City Hall.
Agha says some of the dreams that she moved to Indianapolis with in 2008 are "starting to come true." A quick Google search for Intersections will yield coverages from blogs and newspapers from around the world, including major industry publications. "Like Mecca's sacred pilgrimage site, Agha's piece drew pilgrims: thousands flocked to the Grand Rapids Art Museum to contemplate the filigree shadows cast by her shadowbox. The mood among the swarming crowds approached spiritual exuberance," Art in America's Jason Foumberg wrote.
Next for Agha are shows at Art Dubai and Dallas Contemporary, each featuring a version of the Intersections cube not from wood but steel, which will hold up better over the years. She's exploring offers to show in Korea and Spain.
The Making of 'Intersections'
A behind-the-scenes look at the fabrication of 'Intersections,' from the drawing board to installation at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in 2014 (with a stop in between in Anila Agha's backyard).
NUVO: How has life changed after your ArtPrize victory?
Anila Agha: There's a lot of voyeuristic interest in what I'm going to do with the money. I understand that human nature is such that when you suddenly have a windfall, people are interested. To tell you truthfully, I'm going to put all [the prize money] into my practice. I'm in the process of making two or three pieces that are going to take a lot of money to build. And then I want to sustain my practice in the future, because what if something like this never happens again.
NUVO: Let's talk about Intersections from the beginning. Had you wanted to visit the Alhambra for some time?
Agha: I was born in Pakistan, where the history of how the Moors conquered the southern part of Spain is considered to be very important. It was considered a very enlightening time period for the Muslim world. It was a time of intellectual development, as well as development of the built environment. It was a time that every Muslim child is aware of. Growing up I read a lot of books about Moorish Spain. My father had a very nice library, so I would sneak his books to read them.
When there was an opportunity for me to visit Spain, I decided to avail myself of it and actually visit the Alhambra. To me, it's always important to see architecture, to see how it makes me feel. Every time I go to a place with a sense of history, it means a great deal to me. What were the people who came before me thinking? And when I got to the Alhambra, I realized how amazing that space is. Thousands of craftspeople must have worked on it to build this beautiful enlightened space. And it's not a mosque. It's a place that people lived in, a palace. That fascinated me also, this idea of living in this amazing beauty.
If you travel to the Middle East, you'll notice that mosques are really beautiful; they spend so much time making them elaborate places of worship. But when I was growing up, I wasn't allowed inside a mosque as a female. When I was there, I talked to many people — tourists from Britain, America, Asia — and every time you talked to them, they were looking up around them; not looking at your face but at the beauty around them. And that was the moment that I realized I wanted to build a place like that. Something that would create a sense of a sacred space — a subliminal space where you're forced to cry and laugh at the same time.
NUVO: You didn't have access to that beauty growing up because it was behind the walls of a mosque. So this is your way of making that beauty accessible to all? Maybe that's a corny way to describe it.
Agha: If you think about it, often when there's high contrast, that's when you create the most interesting object, be it in science or in art. Think about the negative and the positive. I had this negative experience when I was growing up, so I make it into a positive experience, so that people can share in it. It's also taking the private and making it public. You're now sharing that moment of enlightenment that you may feel alone, in a space like that — now you're sharing it with all these people of different ethnicities and colors and nationalities. Nobody is excluded from that space. I think that's a pretty awesome idea. Unfortunately, the world is built on exclusion.
NUVO: There's a suspicion that if you're trying to create the conditions for a sublime experience, it must be toward religious ends.
Agha: If you look at James Turrell's work — we have a piece at the IMA — that gives you that same amazing feeling. You're observing nature in its extreme beauty. It makes sense to me to look at work that brings a tear to my eye.
NUVO: What else are we in it for?
Agha: I think that's on a higher plane than the religious. When there's that moment of clarity.
NUVO: And that's how the piece gestures back to the Alhambra, which wasn't a religious space, but did reach toward the sublime.
Agha: That makes it even better, right?