Anila Quayyum Agha swears she wasn't trying to sound any devilish, reptilian overtones when she gave the title “My Forked Tongue” to her TURF piece. But if art imitates life, one might see her installation — which consists of letters from English, Hindi and Urdu alphabets strung on metallic threads and held in place by beads — as a diagram of the linguistic twists and turns that a phrase can take on the path from one's mouth to another's ears. Say, a culturally-loaded phrase like “forked tongue.”
According to Agha, when she titled her piece she was thinking only of her life as a speaker of three languages — English, Hindi and Urdu — that she learned while growing up in Lahore, Pakistan. As she puts it in an artist's statement to "My Forked Tongue," she spoke at home a sort of pidgin English which melded all three of her tongues, although she inadvertently became part of the country's elite because of her skill in speaking and writing in an unadulterated Queen's English.
When she moved to the U.S. in 2000, to study for an MFA in fiber arts at the University of North Texas, linguistic difficulties made it difficult for her to adjust: “Even though I spoke English OK, it was the body language, the slang of the American language. A lot of times it just went over my head: You miss the nuances, the jokes, the references to television shows.” She had “defense mechanisms in place,” she told me while sitting outside her installation, but she felt “very excluded.”
"My Forked Tongue" was a year or more in gestation before she started to realized the piece — to cut out letters (by hand), to string them together, to install them in different formations given the size of a particular gallery (she's hung the piece, which is comprised of many strings of letters, in circular and diagonal formations at different shows; this is first time it's been constructed in a rectangular formation).
“I was thinking of how difficult it is to move to a new country,” Agha said. “You become a hybrid of everything and belong to nothing. The idea is that there's something we can touch and feel and participate in, but still we're outsiders.” She hopes to expand the piece to include other languages — Chinese, Russian — so that it might represent a global situation, a world full of outsiders and liminal figures.
Agha felt very much like an outsider when she moved to Indianapolis in 2008 to take a job as professor of drawing at Herron: “I would go to Starbucks to get a coffee, and I'd speak, and people would turn around to look. Maybe they've gotten used to me or I've gotten used to them, but it used to be very clear that I was an alien.” Her impression of Indianapolis was that was “really tiny,” compared to the city she had just moved from, Houston, which seemed to have a more vibrant arts scene, not to mention more writers who wrote about and critiqued art.
Her first year here was, additionally, something of a trial by fire: She broke her ankle early in her first fall semester at Herron, and was challenged to adjust to her job and a new city, without friends or family, while negotiating the world with a wheelchair and then crutches. Over time, she's come to define Indianapolis as “a really great city,” which has “wonderful people who want it to grow, who want to improve the cultural tone.”
Agha says she was “bored in Pakistan” when she made the move to the U.S. She had been working in Lahore as an assistant manager for brand development at Levi Strauss, having been promoted up the ladder after starting as a product developer. But she felt there was a glass ceiling, and, besides, she didn't find the corporate culture appealing.
Her undergraduate work was in textile design, and she says she has a good understanding of the totality of textiles, having worked in a factory and mill. She worked as a model to put herself through school, which she says was “not a very pleasant experience,” because it “made her feel like an object.”
Textiles continue to influence her work: She often uses thread in her pieces, which is something of a loaded element to work with, according to Agha: “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.”
Not that she's trying to make that point in a didactic way: “I don't want to be the kind of person telling people how to think. I think you have to make them feel it. For me, in my work, I have to have symbolism that creates a layering; and if people are interested enough, they'll start looking at the layers to try to figure out the meaning behind things.”