Anila Quayyam Agha celebrates personal and collective struggles which can be painful yet triumphant through her art
By Fareeha Qayoom
fairly unique and ‘mystifying’ collection of artworks in mixed media opened at Rohtas 2, Lahore by internationally acclaimed artist Anila Quayyum Agha (March 5 – March 13, 2010) before moving on to Rohtas Gallery at Islamabad (March 19 – March 31, 2010).
A unique and interesting body of work that might look familiar at first glance and at the same time, totally new and somehow very unique to a layman because of local references like Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, embroidery and fine beadwork, motifs that might also have something in common with traditional Islamic architecture and textiles, interesting textile print making techniques and abstract forms, geometric and floral (which is the usual mode of expression when you look at traditional Islamic Art). Ageless in its appeal, the work will not look out of place at a modern, contemporary or indeed a stark and a minimal setting; nor would it look odd in a totally ethnic and traditional surroundings, at second glance, it has hidden depths and layers following layers that might take you ages to explore; a ten minute scan is simply not enough. As Timmy Rashid, (a friend of the artist and artist in her own right as she is a graphic designer and photographer) simply put it at the opening, “Anila’s work has a lot of depth.” According to Dr Adil, “Agha’s work is very sophisticated. It might prove too deep for the uneducated,” he is a psychiatrist by profession and makes a point of attending all the top art galleries’ showings regularly apparently.
Salima Hashmi, one of her professors at NCA sketches a true picture of Anila’s works in her introduction as she writes, “Anila Quayyam Agha celebrates personal and collective struggles which can be painful yet triumphant. For this, she employs poetry and text, directly integrating them into the tapestry of the surface. Agha’s long years as a textile designer have not disappeared into oblivion. They are a potent factor in the structure of her artistic vocabulary. The eye of the designer strives for order, even when her content refers to our chaotic stressful existence.”
Her use of color is unique too. She prefers earth colors; you see shades of cream, gold, rust, copper, tan, beige, black (her favorite non-color as she put it!), whites, yellows, reds, browns, grays and blues. There is enough drama going on inside the artworks that you actually don’t need a lot of bold, dramatic splash of colors anyway to make the artwork stand out.
Shouldn’t art be useful, I ask Agha, because to me, ultimately art serves to fill the aesthetic needs of any given society and therefore, must be appreciated by ordinary folk, it can’t be just an intellectual exercise, created to be pulled apart by art critics and intellectuals or to provide food for thought, or as a expression or comment on a particular culture, “Don’t confuse art with design, Fareeha!” she replies quite passionately. “Even though the process of creativity is the same, however, the purpose is quite different. Design is created to fit a set of requirements established by a client, while art is the expression of artist’s innermost creativity. It has nothing to do with commercial aspects at all. Artists create art for art’s sake, because they can’t help but express or create driven by their internal compulsions, not for its inherent usefulness.”
The process of creation for Anila is fairly painstaking. She employs mixed media, setting her work on mulberry paper weighting at least 300 grams which is fairly heavy paper. Cutting out the words, print making, embroidery, stitching it all up, embellishing it with hidden layers, one artwork, for example, has newspapers grinning through the immortal poetry (Love Do Not Speak I, II, and III); it might take her months to create one unique masterpiece. This particular collection has ten pieces on display; created at various important points of enlightenment in her life.
Her work is a socio-political expression of her surroundings. Working with mixed media, she creates artwork that is actually her contribution, comment, and a protest against global politics, mass media, and social and gender roles in our current cultural and global scenario. “As a result, her artwork comes out as conceptually challenging; producing more complicated weaves of thought, artistic action and social experience. The verses stand out as if to portray Anila’s anxiety about the conflicting world and human rights issues. Dyes, stains and beads join collaged or transferred headlines or excerpts from newspaper articles to create images that evoke antique manuscripts but in fact they are references to contemporary events, specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Schezee Zaidi for The News, she was commenting on Agha’s opening night at Rohtas Gallery, Islamabad.
“The combination of embroidery, which typically is seen as women’s work, with news of warfare and the words of a male poet, hints at further political undertones in Anila’s works. Anila’s selected verses of Faiz also offer a true sketch of the prevalent socio-political turmoil and degradation of human rights. From ‘Bol ke lab azad hain tere’ to the enlightening wisdom of ‘Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang’, Anila has captured the complete narrative of the present times,” she concludes.
“Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry resurfaced as an influence in my life because of its focus on overcoming disillusionment with the system and advocating the rights of the common people,” says Agha. As an artist and a citizen of the world, Agha questions the manipulation of mass communication. “How truth is determined within this system of global media and are truths subservient to political and economic gain?” are some of the issues she takes up, as she moves along in her creative world.
Currently Anila Q. Agha lives and works in USA, teaching undergraduate and graduate programs as Asst Professor – Drawing at Herron School of Art and Design, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. She also had the singular honor of being chosen for Artist in Residence program at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (2005) from hundreds of applicants. In addition to extensive exhibition record, solo and group showings, she has won numerous awards for her artwork, for example, most recently, the Fort Worth Dealers Association Award.
She has a MFA in Fiber Arts (2004) from the School of Visual Arts, University of North Texas, USA, BFA in Textile Design (1989) from the National College of Arts (NCA), Pakistan, and a diploma for Knitwear Design and Technology from Leicester Polytechnic, Leicester, United Kingdom.
She has taught design at Richland community college in Richardson, TX, Textile Design at NCA, and draping and sewing at Pakistan School of Fashion Design (before training for six months at Les Ecoles de la Chambre Syndicale Parisienne in Paris, France). Before taking up teaching and art as her chosen career, she has also managed merchandise at Meridian Sourcing, Houston, TX after completing her post-graduate work. Before moving to USA, she also managed the total product development of the Levi’s brand at Levi Strauss Lahore liaison office. She has been a furniture designer, a model, a dress designer, a textile designer, not to mention a Senior Manager at Nabila Enterprises and Ammar Textiles and she had achieved all that before the age of thirty-five!
Photos by Fareeha Qayoom