With only a lightbulb and a six-foot cube of laser-cut wood panels, Anila Quayyum Agha has commandeered Rice University Art Gallery. Her installation “Intersections” transforms the gallery into a haunting space of light, pattern and shadow. The geometric patterns cut out of the six sides of the cube were drawn from the Islamic decorative splendor of the Alhambra. Suspended in the middle of the gallery, with the light radiating from its center, the sculpture projects patterns of shadow over the volume of the gallery and its visitors.
What Agha has done is create a transcendent environment that evokes the spirituality of whatever religion the viewer may embrace, or simply a sense of tranquil contemplation. You may know that you are -sitting on a bench outside a clean, white-walled gallery, but the glowing light and patterned shadow Agha has created also conjure something beyond the visual. You can almost smell the peculiar musty scent of ancient places of worship, places where thousands of people have gone before you over hundreds of years to think, pray, plead and worship. This is the kind of power and quietude Agha’s work emanates.
“Intersections” is the work that took ArtPrize by storm in 2014. It won the Public Vote Grand Prize and tied for the Juried Grand Prize at the 2014 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (That means Agha won $200,000 for the public prize and half of the $200,000 awarded for the juried prize.)
ArtPrize was begun in 2009 with funding from Grand Rapids native Rick DeVos, the grandson of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. It was and remains a highly egalitarian endeavor; any property or business in the downtown area could host or organize an exhibition, and any artist who could find space could exhibit. The huge cash prizes, determined by public voting, drew artists from far and wide and garnered tremendous media attention. It was an amazing event for the community, but art world critics pointed out that it skewed toward spectacle, favoring works that would quickly and obviously gain public attention. The juried prize was added later, allowing art professionals to weigh in. That both the public and jurors recognized Agha speaks to the effectiveness of her work.
The experiences that inform “Intersections” evolved over time. In interviews, Agha explains that growing up in Pakistan, she was forbidden to worship in the mosque. The interior of the mosque was a place of worship and community for men, while women were relegated to worshipping at home. This is not universal in Islam, but was a result of Pakistani cultural mores.
Seeing the Alhambra was transformational for the artist. In 2011, Agha received a New Frontiers travel grant from Indiana University to visit Spain. While there, she first visited the Alhambra, the breathtaking secular complex showcasing the splendor of Islamic art. The palace’s construction began in the mid-13th century during Islamic rule of the Iberian Peninsula (711?1492). It is believed that during this period, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted relatively well. Christians and Jews, the other “peoples of the book,” had, if not equality, at least a fairly high degree of religious and social freedom under Muslim rule. In this context, the decorative glories of the Alhambra are also a symbol of religious tolerance.
Islamic religious art and architecture eschews human and animal depictions, and these constraints seem to be spiritually effective. Visually glorious geometric patterns and the lack of specific depictions result in something that feels universal. The Alhambra was constructed during the golden age of Islamic innovations in math and science, which surely fed such stunning decorative geometries.
Standing in the Rice Gallery space, looking at the filigree of shadows, you feel like you could soar within the volume of the room. Some of the most compelling places of worship combine theater, architecture and atmosphere. Even in this technologically saturated age, the simple magic of light and shadow still rivets people, in the same way it no doubt did our Paleolithic ancestors gathered around a fire. Visitors become part of the imagery in “Intersections,” as the patterns project over them. I saw a trio of young women holding their hands together to create a giant heart-shaped shadow on the wall while another of their group photographed the resulting image.
Walley Films (Mark and Angela Walley) shot a fantastic video about Agha and her installation for Rice Gallery, and it plays in the lobby outside. You can hear the electronic music Mark Walley created for the video from inside the gallery. It enhances rather than detracts from Agha’s installation. Suddenly the suspended cube becomes otherworldly, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey but more decorative.
Agha was in Houston in 2005 with a residency as a fiber artist at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Looking at her website, you see series of delicate, exploratory drawings evolving into cutout paper works. Early installations are subtle, using dangling threads and needles or bits of paper cut into the letters of the Latin, Hindu and Urdu alphabets suspended from metallic threads. In each of the earlier works, you see delicacy, references to the handicrafts of women and cultural interplay.
“Intersections” was a breakout piece for Agha. She got a big cash prize and lots of recognition, but it also pushed her work beyond what she had done before. With ridiculously simple elements, Agha created something visually striking and emotionally powerful. It wowed the masses at ArtPrize as well as the jurors, and it is just as striking at Rice Gallery. The gallery usually commissions site-specific installations, but this is one of several “site-adaptable” works Rice has shown. “Intersections” adjusts itself to the slightly different dimensions of each venue. But it’s also the kind of work that is a tough act for an artist to follow. When something is so successful and gains so much acclaim, what do you do next? It will definitely be interesting to see.