by Dilpreet BhullarMay 09, 2022
Imagine a tangible and aesthetic cube chandelier that explores an abstract idea of 'a moment to consider'. This exploratory moment reflects on the signature style of Anila Quayyum Agha - a cross-disciplinary Pakistani-American artist who is at the cusp of defining the contemporary arts through conceptually challenging mixture of thought, artistic action and social experience. Her introspective creations stand at the threshold of geometric definitions and abstract imagery. Her latest solo exhibition at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York is indeed a 'moment' to explore, experience and fathom. For this exhibition, she reimagines ornamental patterns from history in metal, resin, and paper using traditional and contemporary techniques of craft.
As one enters, the gallery space in New York welcomes the viewers into a world of symmetric arabesque floral motifs that seem to have come to life right out of the golden period of the Mughal empire. Titled as Paradise, these resin paintings directly connect to the defined structure of the Mughal Gardens, that till date continue to sing odes of fine craftsmanship of Islamic architecture in South Asia. Agha's art captures the true essence of traditional Islamic art. The visual vocabulary of this Paradise would encompass within four words often used to characterise Mughal Islamic art – geometry, symmetry, rhythm and harmony.
While one views Agha’s never seen before resin creations, the floral imagery immediately transports one to remembering the very famous Taj Mahal, an epitome of beauty and love. This Indian monument is also the most prominent example of the pietra dura inlay, a beautiful mosaic of vibrant coloured expensive stones adorning marble or stone. My imagination of revisiting the Taj Mahal comes full circle as the artist too draws direct inspiration to this monumental structure.
Agha says, "The idea to emulate this technique was inspired, in part, by one of the world’s most exquisite examples of the craft, the Taj Mahal. Bringing this centuries old technique into a contemporary context not only transforms the intricately sculpted patterns of the three-dimensional works into vibrantly colourful two-dimensional form, but it also pays homage to the artisans and craftspeople who historically have gone unrecognised despite the importance of their artistic output - including the thousands who lost their lives while building the Taj Mahal."
The showstopper of this exhibition is Agha’s signature cube chandelier. Titled as Beautiful Despair, this award-winning installation hangs in the middle of a red room emulating beams of light through intricately laser cut floral forms in lacquered steel. Suffused with cobalt blue, the cube’s shadows cast an ethereal infinity room, almost encapsulating the viewers into a world of magic. There is a sense of delicateness, sensitivity, and intricacy that beautifully emerges from the core of the cube through the casted shadows. It is aesthetically soothing!
However, the thought behind this creation is much deeper than the aesthetic value it holds. The lantern-like patterned cube reflects on heart-felt but contradictory ideas of hope and despair at the same time. Decoding the artwork title, the visual artist shares, "A Beautiful Despair is a response to the past several years in which humanity has faced many challenges, especially the effects of climate change. The work represents a deep despair over lives lost, species on the brink of extinction, and most importantly, the loss of community. Yet it also embodies a sense of hope. When the world came to a standstill during the pandemic, the earth began to regenerate and even thrive. The title reflects these contradictions.” All in all, the cube halts the viewers to that 'moment' of empathy and sympathy towards humanity at large.
Departing from the light installation, Agha has debuted Stealing Beauty, an expansive three-dimensional light installation, created specifically for this exhibition. The mirrored stainless-steel layered wall-relief is laser-cut with sinuous floral patterns comprising visual elements from South Asian Islamic culture enmeshed with motifs by the 19th century British textile designer William Morris, who was inspired by Islamic art and architecture he encountered in his travels.
The contemporary artist says, "In contrast to the serene subject matter, the piece explores complex contemporary ideas, from cultural appropriation to issues of climate change - in particular, the disproportionate impact it is having on those countries already scarred by colonisation, who, by comparison to most industrialised nations, have a relatively small carbon footprint. As resources become scarce, poverty deepens and the effects largely impact female populations, resulting in increased hunger and violence inflicted on women and children. The mirrored steel allows people to see themselves in the floral arrangement - reflections of ourselves in nature as a reminder that we are all responsible for this world." In re-imagining these patterns, Agha considers questions about inspiration versus appropriation and how we often value or legitimise art based on who created it.”
Agha's solo show is a visual definition of that 'moment to consider'. The show leaves back moments of multiple emotions all at once– the moment of silence, the moment of empathy, the moment of hope and the moment of despair. Her heartfelt creations unravel and de-layer multiple meanings as viewers spend every passing moment within this enigmatic space. Agha ends by saying, "The hope is that [within this curation] there is a sense of inclusivity, a feeling of togetherness that resonates and lingers far beyond the show."
Anila Quayyum Agha's A Moment to Consider is on display at Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York until October 8, 2022.