Born in Lahore, Pakistan, mixed media artist Anila Qayyum Agha draws on a culmination of experiences and cultures inculcated on her travels abroad. Anila’s work explores socio-cultural and gender-related issues within contemporary society. Using light and geometric designs which emulate patterns from the Alhambra, Intersections, her latest piece, addresses women’s limited access to public spaces like mosques in predominantly Muslim countries. Having spoken with Merium Kazmi, she shares her views in her own words.
The first inkling I had of becoming a visual artist was in grade school. An art teacher assigned an art project in fourth grade (I think). I chose to depict a watercolor landscape of the surrounding mountains and the setting sun visible from the big picture window in Murree. On viewing the drawing, my teacher commented that I was destined to be an artist. I don’t think I understood what that meant at the time, but the comment inspired me.
When I was very young, my mother – who had a really good hand – would draw birds to entertain us, which fascinated me. My father, an engineer, also had a great facility with creativity and designed homes for his friends towards the latter part of his life. I believe the four years I spent at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore made me realize that I was happiest when making art – even though money was extremely tight and my family was not too happy regarding the co-ed nature of NCA; not so much beause of my family’s conservatism, but more about what the cultural ramifications would be for my future.
I held many day jobs during my undergraduate studies at art school, including modeling assignments for televison and newspapers. My experiences as a model, based on financial need, brought the realization that the Pakistani culture supported superficial roles of beauty and sexuality rather than content development for its female population. According to society’s norms, I felt forced to think that I was best suited to remain confined with no active role outside of my home. In retrospect, that time period first initiated the beginnings of my feminist intellect and a desire for a more just society.
I am a naturalized US citizen and have chosen to live in the US. My decision to immigrate was not made lightly, as the loss of family and friends was a traumatic experience. Through the adversity I’ve experienced over the last 13 years, I believe I have gained a clearer sense of self worth, which has made my life richer and full of possibilities. Having said that, I continue to live in an in-between place that makes me an outsider, both in Pakistan and the US. Experiences of loss and shifting identities inform my artwork, allowing me to explore social and gender-based issues within our contemporary societies.
The most surprising element of my job as an assistant professor of drawing has been the realization that we (humans) bind ourselves to limitations, creating silos driven by disciplines and upbringing. While at graduate school at the University of North Texas, I eschewed a specific discipline-based title for myself. My ability to cross boundaries physically, culturally and metaphorically made me realize that my art could be richer with multiple layers if I drew inspiration and skills from a mixed media approach.
I am fully devoted to my school and students. The vastness of my teaching role and the students keep me young and finely tuned to current ideas. Furthermore, the ideas within my art practice that are connected to female literacy add acuity to my teaching.
Many people and artists have influenced me. First and foremost was Professor Salima Hashmi, an art teacher and later the principal of NCA. My visits to her home were often full of wonder, especially observing the abundant artwork in every nook and cranny. The addition of her husband, the wonderful Shoaib Hashmi, to my circle of influences, along with myriad visitors, teamed with an intellectual and open attitude and respect towards ideas and choices for both men and women, opened my eyes. Additionally, I had a friend at NCA, Sabina Gillani, who also influenced me – not so much because she was an artist, but because her family was tremendously supportive of her. Visiting her home and family opened my eyes to possibilities in my own life. I realized the prospect of creating a life that included an independent mind and an inner intellectual life. Women didn’t need to be subservient to fit proscribed roles limited to childbearing and domestication, but could decide to create a more fulfilling role for themselves. This realization was key to my growth.
Without doubt, women in the Islamic world need attention. I think the Islamic world should embrace change and equality between the sexes if they desire progress and advancement, facilitating from within the education of its female populations. Women form half of the world’s population, and they need to be heard. Conversely, they themselves need to stand up and reject the role of victims and demand equal rights, both in private and public.
I use contrasts and commonalities within myriad cultures, such as Pakistan and the USA, to understand and then articulate through my art my place in human artistic history. The frail and ephemeral reminders of the recent or distant past intrigue me, or the impressions left behind by different cultures, traditions and mores.
Often, disjointed ideas and thoughts coupled with world events may give me a direction to work towards. Once an idea takes root, I make drawings in my sketchbook and continue to think about the various aspects of the concept. Often, the consideration is to examine the possibility of adding complexity to the initial thought to create a more considered critique of our environment and humanity. The ideas ferment in my mind from a few months up to a year before I actually shape them into actual artwork. The process is fluid and I crisscross between current work and ideas for future projects.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 Arts issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play