We are pleased to present new paintings, drawings and light installations by Anila Quayyum Agha, the acclaimed Pakistani-American artist known for her immersive, illuminated, suspended cubes.
Agha's work has been the subject of eight solo museum shows since 2019. A dozen more shows are slated. For this exhibition, she reimagines ornamental patterns from history in metal, resin and paper using traditional and contemporary techniques of craft. The work, which ranges from monumental laser-cut steel sculptures to intimate hand-embroidered drawings, pays homage to artists and craftspeople who historically have gone unrecognized and unnamed despite the importance of their artistic output. This is Agha's first solo exhibition at Sundaram Tagore New York.
The show’s centerpiece is an immersive large-scale light installation commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas in 2021. A Beautiful Despair is part of Agha’s award-winning cube series, which has garnered critical recognition and drawn crowds in museums and public spaces around the world since 2014.
The laser-cut patterns that embellish the lacquered-steel sculpture are the artist’s reinterpretation of floral and geometric motifs found in Islamic art and architecture in Asia and Africa. When lit from within, the cobalt-blue cube casts luminous floor-to-ceiling shadows that transform the gallery environment, creating an inclusive space for a shared experience, in contrast to the similarly ornamented public spaces Agha was excluded from as a female growing up in Lahore.
Agha also debuts Stealing Beauty (Steel Garden – After Durer’s A Great Piece of Turf), an expansive three-dimensional light installation created especially for the 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. In reimagining these patterns, Agha considers questions about inspiration versus appropriation and how we often value or legitimize art based on who created it.
When activated by multiple light sources, the gleaming installation casts a jungle of flora-shaped shadows that seem to flutter on the wall; a metaphor for the tangled complexities of contemporary life.
The exhibition marks the debut of a series of resin paintings in which the artist radically expands her use of color and explores pattern in new ways. Agha departs from her characteristic streamlined palettes in favor of vivid hues inspired by the high-contrast color combinations popular in South Asian and African textiles. The vivid colors accentuate both the pattern and the areas of negative space, which, up to now, have been set against a simple white or black background in her embroidered works or hollow in her sculptures.
Agha's labor-intensive process involves building up the surface in stages, with layers of colored resin applied over a substrate. Her complex compositions are turned into a digital template and incised into the resin-coated panels in a manner similar to engraving. The process can take from twelve to sixteen hours per design. Color is then delicately poured by hand to fill the precisely incised grooves. After approximately 24 hours, when the resin has hardened, the surface is leveled, and the process begins again with the next color. Each work is composed of six to twelve colors.
Although produced with the aid of technology and wholly contemporary in their aesthetic, each work is imbued with history. In addition to the formal elements inspired by traditional Islamic art, the unique application of colors references the centuries-old craft of pietra dura, the decorative inlay technique that flourished in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Pietra dura was used throughout Europe and eventually in India, notably in the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned one of the world’s most exquisite examples of the craft, the Taj Mahal. For Agha, the opulent structure is a source of inspiration and fascination—not just for the sheer beauty of the sumptuously detailed stonework, but the inherent contradiction of one man’s monument to love extinguishing the lives of the thousands of unacknowledged craftsmen who built it.
Also on view are select works from a series of embroidered drawings recently on view in Mysterious Inner Worlds, the artist’s 2022 solo show at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, alongside new works created for this exhibition. Agha, who is formally trained in textile design, creates luminous drawings on paper using hand-stitching and beadwork to highlight the disparities in how we evaluate labor based on gender, ethnicity or economic station—a theme she explores frequently in her practice. Articulated in reflective metallic thread and glass beads, the drawings play with light and shadow in a manner similar to her sculptures.
These works on paper are inspired by memories of her mother’s quilting circles, but also reference women’s labor, which often goes without payment or recognition. “In my artwork, I use a combination of textile processes and sculptural methodologies to question the gendering of women’s works as inherently domesticated and excluded from being considered an art form,” she says.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Anila Quayyum Agha is a Pakistani-American artist who works in a cross-disciplinary fashion with mixed media. She creates artwork that explores global politics, cultural multiplicity, mass media, and social and gender roles in our current cultural and global scenario. As a result, her artwork is a conceptually challenging mixture of thought, artistic action and social experience. “In a world where difference and divergence dominate most conversations about the intersection of cultures, my artwork explores the harmonies without ignoring the shadows, ambiguities and dark spaces between them,” she says.
After arriving in the U.S. from Pakistan in 2000, Agha attended graduate school to study fiber arts. Over time, she expanded her practice to include other mediums as her work became increasingly sculptural.
While still a student, Agha was frequently told that as a woman, particularly a woman of color and an immigrant, she would never advance her career if she continued to use techniques associated with craft or visual elements unique to Islamic culture. But after seeing exhibitions showcasing the subversive embroidered paintings of Egyptian artist Ghada Amer, the hand-sewn story quilts by African American artist Faith Ringgold and the multimedia installations created using textile techniques by American artists Anne Wilson and Ann Hamilton, Agha knew there was space for the kind of art she wanted to make, which was authentic to her life experiences while also conveying universal truths.
EXHIBITIONS, COLLECTIONS AND AWARDS
Anila Quayyum Agha received a BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and an MFA from the University of North Texas. She resides in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Augusta, Georgia. Agha is a professor and the Eminent Morris Scholar of Fine Art at Augusta University (some of the work in A Moment to Consider was partially funded by the Morris Foundation at Augusta University).
Agha’s work has been exhibited widely, including at Asia Society, New York; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; National Sculpture Museum, Valladolid, Spain; Chimei Museum of Art, Tainan City, Taiwan; Dallas Contemporary Art Museum, Texas; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; University of New México Art Museum, Albuquerque; Jule Collins Smith Museum, Auburn, Alabama; Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida.
Major awards include the 2019 Painters and Sculptors Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the 2021 SARF (Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship). Agha's work was included in the exhibition She Persists in the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, 1965 | Lives and works in Augusta, Georgia, and Indianapolis, Indiana.