anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light

DB: in an increasingly virtual world, your work is firmly rooted in physical experience — from large sculptural installations to embroidered drawings with the use of textile processes. do you think society today is moving too far away from materiality, and traditional ways of making? 


AQA: the year (2020) spent in isolation has, I think, made me and the rest of the world realize the immense value of human interactions and a close-knit community. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a virtual environment without close contact or intimate experiences with people, nature or objects. particular locations, places and objects trigger precious memories which are often closely linked to images, sounds and smells. going forward, a combination of virtual and physical environments creating interactive experiences will be key for me. I do think I’m an object maker working in tandem with technology and that will probably not change. and in my opinion, technology will definitely have a far-reaching impact on both contemporary artists and the artwork they may or will produce.


as an aside, I must say that I have read and personally believe that people who enjoy creative pursuits and practice handiwork or craft skills through the utilization of their hands sustain more rewarding lives. however, evaluating the statistical efficacy of artistic or creative pursuits on our societies, such as artmaking, creative-writing, theatrical performances, music and dance is difficult as the resultant renaissance takes time; thus, the progressively lowered governmental and private funding for arts and humanities’ education which ultimately impacts support for creative professionals too. conversely, I believe the entire world largely survived the pandemic isolation of last year due to the creative arts/ crafts such as books, movies, interior design and construction projects, gardening and traditional crafts.

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
alhambra nights, 2016 | acrylic and halogen bulb | 30″ x 27″ x 30″



AQA (continued): the world population faced immense challenges in the past 1½ years. to me it is obvious that climate change is impacting every living being on this planet, and we are seeing an increase in the frequency of floods, forest fires, tsunamis, tornadoes impacting the ozone layer and warming the planet. the realization of the deep connections between humans and the earth/ nature is timely, so all of us can do our part in preserving the earth for our future generations. I felt deep despair over the loss of human lives and species extinct or close to extinction, and especially the loss of community. yet, I also feel a sense of hope, with the knowledge that when the world came to a standstill, the earth started regenerating and thriving. I do wonder though if our society will revert back to capitalistic consumption at break neck speed like before, once the pandemic isolation is over. so too, I wonder if people will remember the lessons learned during the last year and gravitate towards more hands-on, interactive pursuits and environments instead of gravitating to computer screens/ consumption. I for one am pretty sure the direction I’ll choose, and look forward to continuing a progressively consistent development of my art practice with a hands-on approach. 

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
crushed tulips | mixed media on paper (steel dust, pastels, charcoal, wax, beads, embroidery, cut mylar) | 41” x 35.5”

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DB: what impressions do you hope your work conjures? what discussions do you hope it provokes?


AQA: my goal, as with all my work, is to invite the viewer to confront the contradictory nature of all intersections while simultaneously exploring boundaries. my drawings and the installations use light, and variation of pattern along with the palpability of reflection, questioning the assumptions of geometric design as a form opposite to representational art. I think the source of this question also 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 the lived experience aimed 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 created by the variations of a motif or pattern, I show the interplay of nature and its collective impact on those that perceive it. in this way I try to 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 vulnerable or open to myriad interpretations just like life itself.

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
crushed tulips (detail)



AQA (continued): in my design process, I rely on the purity and inner symmetry of geometric design and the interpretation of the cast shadows within the structured objects. I create patterns with porous boundaries between sections like the center vs. the borders. when viewed carefully, hidden shapes or patterns emerge, as surprise elements. depending on the spaces the installation pieces are installed within, the resultant shadows may be direct reflections in tandem with exaggerated or fractured shadows. it’s my way to aid the audience in contemplation of complex ideas that undergird gender roles and shifting identities; social codes, literacy, permeable cultures and unnecessary class systems. usually, I employ light to accentuate and explore the softness within the hardness by creating duality of light/shadow, public/private, and static/dynamic to navigate personal, communal or public space. in my mind this methodology may encourage contemplation of the contradictions faced in metaphorically crossing boundaries between cultures or concepts globally.


additionally, I want my work to provoke 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 and ultimately circular geometric pursuit where primary form can only be imagined and never really captured. in a contextual milieu where difference and divergence dominate most conversations about the intersection of civilization, my artwork 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.

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
crossing boundaries – black, 2017 | asia society: new york, NY, 2017
lacquered steel and halogen bulb | 48″ x 48″ x 48″

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DB: what are you currently fascinated by, and how is it feeding into your artistic practice?


AQA: creating abstract artwork requires ingenuity to reveal concerns and connections to world events. as an artist, I can’t and won’t work in isolation, but need to participate contemporaneously to make sense of history in the making. layered, complex ideas in experiential form that touch upon contradictions of our lived experiences can provide enduring influence on the artist and audience. for me experiences that have had a lasting influence on my own psyche impels me to use similar methodologies to create connections, meaning and enrichment for my audience.


I’m thrilled that racial/gender equity an justice are fully in focus in our global discourse creating positive change. excellent diverse hires, while removing bad players who have harassed and discriminated both gendered and racial minorities in the workplace is a good direction. art museums are finally revising their permanent collections to rectify skewed representation of populations by increasing acquisitions by women, LGBTQR and artists of color. I’m looking forward to future art museum visits that may not feel completely imperial or colonialized and instead I may feel a sense of belonging and representation. the tide has slowly shifted to accommodate concepts that were previously eschewed by the artworld. I’m gladly reading books written by women writers on both female and racially diverse or gendered artists. covering topics that had limited traction in our global discourse mostly effecting women and minorities, like incorporation of crafts or connecting spirituality with beauty previously deemed unviable or banal may now be de rigueur. representation of diverse global artists coupled with under-represented art scholarship is broadening the field by bringing a confluence of ideas that are more expansive and inclusive, thus expanding artmaking. it’s all change for good!

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
intersections – black 2, 2015 | mixed media on paper | 27.25″ x 33.25″



AQA (continued): additionally, the isolation in the past 14 months has been a time of severe loss. but a silver lining to the loss and isolation was that we all slowed down, which allowed the earth to rejuvenate itself. I hope that humanity has realized the depth of our connection to the earth, and that every action has a reaction that impacts the viability of the planet for us, our future generations, and every other living being sharing the planet. I am excited to read about bumble bees coming back, and seeing bird populations increasing. I hope people in the USA will consider growing bee gardens rather than the manicured lawns that have limited benefits for the planet. hopefully the planet’s long shut-down has slowed the earth’s warming, allowing it to breathe and recuperate from human consumption. and my deepest hope is that the global population will receive COVID vaccinations irrespective of borders, locations, race or color and the rich countries will help the poor so we can eradicate the virus which has played such havoc across porous borders. lastly, I’m excited to start participating within my core and extended communities again that include family members, friends and acquaintances around the world. coming out of this pandemic with renewed vigor to protect the planet and all its inhabitants as gentle/generous guardians will be a great outcome. I think, within my own practice, I’ll start seeing the influence of the past two years which makes me excited. I think change, big or small is good for all of us.

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anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
intersections – black 2 (detail)



DB: can you tell us about any upcoming projects you are particularly excited about?


AQA: it has still been a busy year even with the isolation and post-ponements for my exhibitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. most of last year, I worked on the artwork for my exhibition titled a beautiful despair, opening in late september 2021 at the amon carter museum of american art in fort worth, texas. I am pleased with the finished artwork, which greatly benefited from virtual visits with various curators nationally, especially shirley reece-hughes of the carter. attending virtual conferences, lectures, artist/curator talks, listening to podcasts, and having time to read was both educational and inspirational, and a real bonus. my second show, re-scheduled from april 2020 to october 2021, titled weight of black will open in october, at the jule colins smith museum of art at auburn university in alabama.

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
illuminated inner spaces 4, 2005 | mixed media on paper | 30″ x 22″



AQA (continued): another big change last year was my move to augusta, georgia (turning the state blue☺ – kidding) as a professor and resident research scholar at augusta university. my extreme isolation in a brand-new city with no relationships with my new colleagues deepened my already profound sense of loss and sorrow and heightened further, with daily news of the continued loss of lives across the world. the intensity of last year coupled with the change and introduction of new locale, landscape, flora and fauna added depth to my ideas. my previous concerns regarding gender and social/ political issues of discrimination are now encompassed by the extremes of climate change which will largely affect black/brown populations in third world countries. I’m interested in the new possibilities, although it will take time to synthesize the influences and effects of the pandemic on my creative output.

anila quayyum agha on how life experience led to an impassioned artistic exploration of light
illuminated inner spaces 4 (detail), 2005



AQA (continued):  lastly, starting this january 2021, I have been fully focused in designing my first solo exhibition at sundaram tagore gallery in chelsea, new york. the opening is in march 2022, for which I am planning three new immersive installations, a 12’ large wall relief project and multiple embroidered drawings. the gallery is moving to larger premises which I have not physically seen, but viewed through photos and architectural plan drawings. now that the vaccinations are making it possible to travel again, I plan to visit NYC to both check out the new gallery site to ensure my plans for the show are valid, and also visit myriad art museums. for me and most artists I know, showing in NYC is nerve racking and exhilarating and I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation.


thank you, both to you and your audience for the interest in my artwork.


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