Artist Profile: Anila Agha

Artist Profile: Anila Agha by Thomas Boldt

The internet has an incredible power to remove boundaries in a number of areas of life, and few people know this better than Pakistani-American artist Anila Agha. Originally born in Lahore, Pakistan but finishing her art studies with an MFA from the University of North Texas in 2001, Agha recently found herself receiving a great deal of free press for her 2014 ArtPrize winning installation piece titled ‘Intersections’, thanks in part to some online viral attention.

The piece features an impressive large square wooden box laser-cut into beautiful and intricate traceries that evoke the geometric splendor of much Islamic art. It is then illuminated by an incredibly bright 600 watt light bulb, filling the entire room with a massive lacework of shadow and light that completely transforms the space. As visitors walk around the otherwise empty room, their shadows interplay with the projected shadow, changing the shadows and forming new interpretations as the light and dark plays over them.

The first piece, Intersections, gave rise to a series of works that follow a similar style. The original inspiration for the series was a visit to a former Muslim palace, the Alhambra, which was built in medieval Spain during Muslim rule and is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In turn, this began to evoke memories of her childhood in Lahore. While she was growing up, women were excluded from visiting the local mosque despite its importance as a center of cultural knowledge and learning, and her experiences as an immigrant in the United States have intensified her desire to overcome exclusionary practices through her work.

As she explains in the artist statement for the piece, “The Intersections project takes the seminal experience of exclusion as a woman from a space of community and creativity such as a Mosque and translates the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that have been my experience while growing up in Pakistan. The wooden frieze emulates a pattern from the Alhambra, which was poised at the intersection of history, culture and art and was a place where Islamic and Western dicourses, met and co-existed in harmony and served as a testament to the symbiosis of difference.”

The piece was the first entry in ArtPrize competition history to win both the juried and popular vote categories, awarding an impressive $300,000 in prize money to Agha. The piece then moved to the Rice Gallery in Texas, before travelling across the country to various museums for display. Agha was still producing more pieces with a similar technique during 2016, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more of this popular and beautiful style in her upcoming projects.