Being shown alongside art world heavy hitters David Salle and Nate Lowman is quite the coup for an emerging talent, but Anila Quayyum Agha is ready for the challenge. The Indianapolis-based artist was chosen out of a field of more than 1,500 entries to capture the ArtPrize 2014 public and jury votes with her lacelike 6.5-foot wooden cube dubbed Intersections.
As a prelude to ArtPrize’s arrival in Dallas in 2016, the Dallas Contemporary will exhibit Intersections starting April 8. An exhibition in Dallas is particularly meaningful for the artist, who earned her MFA from the University of North Texas.
“Intersections represents diversity and inclusion, and that’s the spirit of ArtPrize,” says Dallas executive director Ariel Saldivar.
Originally illuminating the walls of the Grand Rapids Art Museum with a single bulb, Intersections references the geometrical patterning found in Islamic sacred spaces as it explores the binaries of public and private, light and shadow. The Pakistan-born artist says she strives in her work to represent “the people who have made a home in places that are not our homes. We are often overlooked because our numbers are smaller, or our culture is different.”
“Intersections represents diversity and inclusion, and that’s the spirit and methodology of ArtPrize,” says the organization’s Dallas executive director Ariel Saldivar, who was instrumental in getting Agha’s work in the Juried Grand Prize category, where it shared the award with Sonya Clark’s The Haircraft Project.
“Her piece is like walking in a sacred space. It’s arresting and gave you this sense of peace.”
Says Dallas Contemporary senior curator Justine Ludwig, “I love that Anila transforms the gallery into a contemplative space. Her work illuminates the dialogue between cultures and the permeability of borders that divide them. I find the message behind her work to be beautiful and universally accessible.”
An associate professor at the Herron School of Art and Design at Indianapolis University, Agha was first encouraged to explore sculpture as a graduate student at the UNT. Moving to the U.S. just prior to 9/11, she found her role in the context of U.S. and world art history while studying in Denton.
“When I got here, I had to brush up on my understanding of what western art history was all about,” she recalls. “Getting that grounding was very helpful, but it was also a very competitive school. The graduate critiques were excruciatingly hard, but that also pushed us to do better. It prepared me to make real work.
Majoring in fiber arts, she was nonetheless passionate about painting and the pictorial space. Agha soon began using holes and shadows in her work, which she would return to in larger pieces down the line.
“My professors used to tell me, ‘You are kind of three dimensional,’” she says. “But because of lack of faith or money or resources, I started underestimating myself.
“After graduation, I moved to Houston and had a wonderful show that was very well-received because it had the three-dimensional quality on a two-dimensional surface. When I saw the result of that, I didn’t want to restrict myself any more.”
She moved to Indianapolis to teach and first heard about ArtPrize when the organization’s director of exhibitions, Kevin Buist, spoke at a 2010 event. It took accessing grant money from IU for her to embrace the scale of Intersections, but she originally had no idea where it would be displayed.
“I had already made the project, but I was willing to say no if [the space] had been less than 30 feet square.”
The Contemporary presents another challenge, as its ceilings are a mere 11 feet high, but Agha says she’s interested in what possibilities exist with each installation. “I’m open to showing it in a room that’s circular. The piece is so versatile, it can be shown in many different spaces.”
Intersections will be on view at the Dallas Contemporary through August 23.