ArtPrize Winner Aims to Bridge Culture Gap

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"Intersections" at GRAM

This article appeared in the print version of the Grand Rapids Magazine August issue.

Four years after Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha won both the juried and public grand prize awards — a first in ArtPrize history — her prized work, “Intersections,” has made its way back to the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

The enormous, wooden cube hangs delicately from the ceiling, a single light bulb suspended in its center. The light shines through the intricate, laser-cut patterns on all six sides of the shape, casting shadows on the walls, ceiling and floor.

“I’m curious on how people perceive pattern over here versus in other parts of the world, especially when it is used in service of some kind of a religious faith,” Agha said. “I’m obviously influenced by some of the traditional patterns that I have grown up with from the Middle East and South Asia, but they are becoming more evolved.”

Dialogue is a key component of Agha’s work. She strives to cultivate conversation between people with dissenting opinions, beliefs and ethnicities.

“I always wanted to create a level of understanding about where I come from and how I’m not very different from people who I associate with now,” she said. “‘The East is not very different from the West’ kind of thing. I’m definitely interested in creating dialogue that makes our environment and our politics a lot better for people who live in either place.”

Anila Quayyum Agha strives to cultivate conversation between people with dissenting opinions, beliefs and ethnicities.
Anila Quayyum Agha strives to cultivate conversation between people with dissenting opinions, beliefs and ethnicities.

Before “Intersections” took center stage at ArtPrize in 2014, Agha had a difficult time finding an exhibition space that could accommodate the large structure. Because the shadows are part of the sculpture, they needed room to dance on the walls around it.

“You know that movie on baseball where Kevin Costner says, ‘If you build it, they will come?’” she said. “That was my attitude. I was like thinking, ‘OK, once I build this, I will figure it out.’

“So, once I was able to get into the ArtPrize for that year, I was very excited because I was going to be able to show it at the GRAM,” she continued. “And for me, that was just the most amazing thing.”

In addition to sparking exchanges between museum patrons, Agha is particularly interested to see how guests respond to the piece outside of the context of the annual art competition.

“It’s no longer the kind of atmosphere that you would find at ArtPrize where everybody is out and about, and they are looking to see the work,” Agha said. “It’s going to be just me and this amazing other artist’s work. And so, people may have time to absorb it and sit with it and think about what it means and what we, the artists, are trying to say. I think it would have a more contemplative impact on the people there.

Agha’s work will be showing in conjunction with that of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at the GRAM through Oct. 7. Though the artists’ works are showing at the same time, they are concurrent solo exhibitions.

*Editor’s Note: The exhibition was set to conclude on Aug. 26, but has been extended through Oct. 7. This article has been updated to reflect that change.

**Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Art Museum

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