Anila Quayyum Agha

Anila Quayyum Agha

Anila Quayyum Agha took home both the Public Vote and Juried Grand Prizes for her piece "Intersections" at Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) at ArtPrize 2014. Her piece "Intersections" along with new work, is on display again at GRAM for the summer of 2018. We were able to talk with her about her work, her experiences during ArtPrize, and life after her big win.

ArtPrize: One thing I’ve always appreciated about ["Intersections"] is how it captured both the public vote and the juried vote. That is an amazing thing that we don’t see very often.

Anila Quayyum Agha: Yes, that was amazing!

So that’s a conversation at ArtPrize that’s happening a lot, looking at the difference between the opinion of the formally educated art world and the visitors who are just coming to check out what’s happening downtown. Can you speak on that a little bit?

Beauty is not something that’s really important within the art school paradigm, and education-wise, if you take beauty, just the physical beauty of someone, say a woman for example, and that becomes someone’s identity, now that is a problem. I totally get that. But having a beautiful experience, that is something different.

“I believe in making work that people can be drawn in by, and then it’s your job to figure out what you’re thinking.”

Now, in our euro-western education, there’s a tendency to walk away from the beauty. Often that’s considered to be banal or dehumanizing for that woman. So that is understandable, but then, I think integral to most important artists, if they can give someone a beautiful experience, that beauty in itself changes. It’s no longer banal, but it’s that moment when you are closer to say, the sacred. Looking at a sunset that only you are there to enjoy and it brings tears to your eyes. There’s a level of connectedness and there’s a level of community. So I think if you can separate the two, or maybe still have the first type of beauty with the second, there’s a possibility to bring the two together.

I’m not saying that women have an inclination to make beautiful things, because men do too - they just don’t talk about it as much. I think it’s the goal of most artists to create beautiful experiences. That is what makes work memorable.

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I don’t think that was my intent at the beginning. But what was really interesting was that I come from a place where beauty plays a very strong role in the way women are presenting themselves in that part of the world. So I grew up being made to think of myself as an object of desire rather than a person with a mind and abilities. I think use of beauty can be a very political statement, and I think that that’s where the within “Intersections” and all my work, the craft is very beautiful.

And to tie that into an idea that you want people to be thinking about and paying attention to, and rope them in first with the beauty is really powerful.

And it’s not just banal. It talks about my background, because you know in the East, craft is a very important element of fine art. But people there live with craft! The basketry and the carpet, people live off those things! It’s a way of life, but it’s also art. And here, there’s a very clear definition of the two. If you’re making craft, you’re a lesser than the fine artist. So I wanted to do that high/low thing too, male/female, heavy/light. Talking about something that’s really important and heavy, but in a light fashion because it’s levitating. I believe in making work that people can be drawn in by, and then it’s your job to figure out what you’re thinking.

Exactly. You got me in the room, the rest is up to me.

Right, then you can add more or add less. And that’s why most of my work has narrative titles. Except for this one. But the word “intersections” was just so right. There was no way I could have made it anything else.

“You know, I never imagined this would happen to me. I’m so thrilled.”

What would you say your initial reaction to ArtPrize was like?

It’s very overwhelming, the whole event. I must say the website was pretty easy to navigate. The overwhelming part was trying to find a match. Because I knew I needed space. I had decided right from the start, if I don’t get the right space, I’m not going to show it. So that was a technical decision.

It was an interesting thing that a lot of people wanted to host my work but just didn’t have the right space. I have to build the piece in the space because it comes apart, so I had to say no. And then GRAM, when they agreed, it was just the perfect marriage at that time. Once I installed it and the light came on, and everything worked out, I would come back in a few times over the next few weeks. I would come in here and just stand around for a few hours and just watch.

But after that my mind would get so tired. Because people would ask questions if they found out I was here. It was wonderful to see the hundreds of bodies moving around it, but also exhausting.

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Can you speak a little bit about after you won? What happened in the weeks and months following that?

It took me a long time to cash the check, I didn’t know what to do with it! I’d been so used to being poor, I didn’t know what to do with it! The dean at my school invited me to sit in on a meeting with the advisory board and one of the guys there sent me to an accountant who would take care of it. Then I finally cashed it.

Aside from that anecdotal funniness, ArtPrize has given me a lot of visibility, not just the participation part of it, but also the win. So I’m no longer just the people’s choice only, the critics are looking at my work which is awesome.

I’ve been so busy the last three years, I haven’t had a moment off. I’ve taken a few weeks over the last few years for vacation, but other than that I’ve been working. Now in the fall, I’m taking a leave of absence from my school so I can concentrate. It’s a leave of absence without pay, but I felt like it was time to just sit and think and figure out what I’m doing next.

Yeah you’ve got to carve that space out, it doesn’t just happen. I’m glad to hear that things are going so well.

Yes, it’s been busy! The same piece, "Intersections," is being shown in North Carolina Museum right now. It opened three weeks ago, so this is the second edition of the same piece. When I went to North Carolina to open that show, at that point in time I was in six museum exhibitions simultaneously. You know, I never imagined this would happen to me. I’m so thrilled.

This interview is a written transcript of a conversation with Anila Agha. It has been edited/condensed for reading comprehension. The raw sound clip of our conversation can be found here.

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