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Memory & Meaning Cubed


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On October 10, 2014, Anila Quayyum Agha's "Intersections" won ArtPrize's $200,000 Public Vote Grand Prize and $100,000 of the Juried Grand Prize. This piece, originally published in February 2014, provides background on both the Indianapolis-based artist and the winning piece.

When her work turned into an Internet phenomenon earlier this year, Indianapolis mixed-media artist Anila Quayyum Agha didn't notice. Not at first.

Agha had entered her latest installation -- a 6 1/2 square-foot laser-cut wooden cube which casts intricate geometrical shadows where it's hung -- into an art contest and didn't get much response.

"I didn't see any result from any stupid competition so I just kind of forgot about it," says Agha, an assistant professor of drawing at Herron School of Art and Design.

Though she heard it was a finalist for third place in the SEE ME Competition, she still hasn't received a big prize and the piece, called "Intersections," is packed away in a crate in a corner of her garage studio.

This is the cube that catapulted Agha to internet fame. - ANILA AGHA
  • Anila Agha
  • This is the cube that catapulted Agha to internet fame.

But entry into the competition sent photos of the cube zipping around the online art world. So much so that when art blog Colossal posted them, images of Agha's work generated 11,000 Facebook likes and 500 Tweets. About a dozen other sites posted them, too, including fashion site and variety culture curator, creating Internet buzz that's still going.

"It's all over the world," says Agha, who only realized what was happening online a few weeks ago when her friends and students told her. "I guess, you know, I got my 15 minutes of fame," she says modestly.

No wonder. The cube, which took a year and a $35,000 grant from Indiana University to create, is a statement to the world from the artist, who faced discrimination and repression when she grew up in Pakistan. It is Agha's re-imagination of Islamic mosques -- places of Muslim worship that she wasn't allowed inside as a young woman. Her two brothers and father and other men could visit the sacred places, but women were discouraged from leaving their homes in Pakistan, she explains.

"These mosques are so beautifully decked out," she says. "I felt, growing up, that I missed out on the local art repository as well as my ability to appreciate religion from a much closer more open way."

So, several years ago she visited the Alhambra palaces in Granada, Spain, built centuries ago for high-ranking Muslims.There she drew her versions of the intricate designs she missed seeing in her childhood. Then, she returned to Indianapolis with them and, with a laser machine and technician paid for by the grant, she turned the drawings into her "Intersections" cube.

"I think it's the most ambitious piece I've ever done," she says.

Ambition is something Agha knows about.

With six children in Lahore, Pakistan, Agha's parents faced challenges -- especially after the prime minister her father worked for was overthrown and hanged.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a popular Berkeley College and Oxford University-educated prime minister in the 1970s, was deposed in a coup. Agha's father, an engineer, worked for the government that was run by Bhutto, known as the "People's Leader," and her father was punished for his association to Bhutto following the coup.

"He was kind of penalized and he died a very disappointed man," she says of Bhutto. "And we were quite penniless. Really poor. We had property, but couldn't sell it."

Anila Agha working in her studio on Indianapolis near east side. She works with paper, wood and wax to create interesting shapes and pattern. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • Anila Agha working in her studio on Indianapolis near east side. She works with paper, wood and wax to create interesting shapes and pattern.

About a decade later, Agha's father became ill and died. He was 55.

"We had no health insurance and there was no money coming in," she remembers. "It was very sad."

Well before her family's tragedy, though, a young Agha realized her life's profession. One day in grade school, when her watercolor of a Pakistani sunset delighted her teacher, the woman complimented her, telling her "you are going to be an artist."

"That just kind of sat in my head for the longest time," she says. "I think it saved my life. It gave me direction and an agenda."

Despite her family's economic challenges, Agha got into an art school, where she earned her BFA in textile design. While studying there, she met the American man she would marry. Their union led her to a move to Texas and, after her marriage broke up and Agha finished graduate school, she landed a professorship at Herron and moved to Indianapolis in 2008.

From a comfortable spot in her Indianapolis' duplex, Agha looks back on her challenging path of work, study and job applications matter-of-factly. The hard work propelled her to this point in life, when she splits her time between teaching college students and creating her own pieces.

"I had a fire under my bottom," she remembers. "It was just so imperative to keep doing this so I was producing and exhibiting and teaching."

These days, she is surrounded by American comfort and her own artwork. The converted garage behind her home functions as her art studio.

While famous for her cube, Agha's skill with a wide variety of media is on ample display in her studio. - PERRY REICHANADTER
  • Perry Reichanadter
  • While famous for her cube, Agha's skill with a wide variety of media is on ample display in her studio.

And in her short time in Indianapolis, Agha has earned prestigious grants, including the Efroymson Contemporary Arts Fellowship, the Arts Council of Indianapolis' Creative Renewal Arts Fellowship and IU's New Frontiers Exploratory Research Grant. And she has exhibited her work all over the city, including at the Indianapolis International Airport and the TURF IDADA Art Pavilion, which was set up to showcase local art during Super Bowl XLVI that was in Indianapolis.

Last year, she created the cube.

The piece is dear to her partly because it required so much work and partly because it represents her childhood experience.

So, even as Agha works on her next series -- an exploration of environmental disasters that she views as a metaphor for the exploitation of women -- she's trying to find a suitable place for the cube to hang.

When she finished it in December, she made the now-famous photo by hanging it for five days in the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Fine Arts Center at Herron.

"Lots of students didn't know that was my work," she says.

Today, it's still in the crate in the garage studio, but Agha doesn't want it to stay there. Maybe it could hang at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a time, or someone could add it to a collection, she suggests.

"I would like to sell it and get it out of here so I can produce the next one," she says.

The online world would probably like that, too.


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