Between Light and Shadow at the Toledo Museum of Art
Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha won both the popular and juried vote at ArtPrize (an international art competition that takes place every other fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan) in 2014 for her work Intersections, a feat that no artist had previously achieved. This double-win put Agha “on the map” so to speak, and since, her highly-immersive installations have garnered not only critical praise, but widespread public acclaim, frequently featured on Instagram and other social media platforms due to their larger-than-life, spectacular use of space and light. Like artists such as Yayoi Kusama, and Rebecca Louis Law (whose flower installation at the Toledo Museum of Art last year drew record crowds), Agha’s work is activated by the viewer, and for some reason encourages something that I have dubbed in the past the “museum selfie”. The TMA has caught on to the popularity of such exhibitions, as they are about to open a Kusama exhibition in December to run alongside Agha’s show, featuring one of Kusama’s famous infinity rooms.
It would be incredibly reductive to simply think of Agha’s installations as merely good instagram fodder – there’s some fairly serious, weighty issues being addressed by these gorgeous environments. “Between Light and Shadow” at TMA features three installations by Agha, including a new site-specific work. All three address belonging and exclusion, in ways that may not be readily apparent after a stroll through the galleries. The only didactic material provided by the museum is a large text panel at the entrance to the three rooms, and for me, it wasn’t enough. Hopefully people read this material and take it to heart, but once inside these awe-inspiring spaces, it’s no longer in view, and it is incredibly easy to simply get lost in the beauty. A pamphlet would have been much more handy, but this is truly my only critique of the otherwise stunning show.
Agha’s sculptural pieces are made from laser-cut steel, and in the first gallery, The Greys in Between features a tetrahedron and octahedron, suspended in the air, slowly rotating. The vegetal patterns, like much of her work, reference Islamic decorative art, and the shadows of these flowers and leaves are projected onto the walls, ceiling, and floors via the two extremely bright bulbs. The attendant reminds viewers not to look directly at them, but even without a direct stare, one of the more fascinating effects of her work is the little ghosts created by the afterimage of their brightness – it does create a bit of a dizzying feeling, and I think adds to the experience.
The second gallery is the show-stopper. Here you get to experience her award-winning installation Intersections, newly installed, and with a deep red wall color (originally the walls were white). I think the richness of the red renders the piece even more contemplative, and reminiscent of the inspiration for the work, the Alhambra Palace in Spain. Built in 899, the beautiful building was a location where the Western world and Islamic world met, and intermixed. Agha’s use of Islamic pattern here is at its most referential, like a super-sized decorative oil lamp, the large cube hangs in the center of the room, casting its brilliant shadows out into every direction.
For the artist the Alhambra and its design calls to mind spaces of devotion and social interaction – the mosque itself – sacred spaces of prayer, discourse, and creativity that she, as a girl growing up in Lahore, was excluded from. But unlike the mosques of her childhood, Agha’s installation is an inclusive space, where visitors of any color or background, holding any opinion or belief, are welcome.
The final room of the exhibit, unlike the others, features a fixed object – a small shed-sized house made of white, powder-coated laser-cut steel, sitting on a plinth at the center of the room. When you enter, your instinct is to walk around the rear, looking for the door, but as you turn the corner, you realize there is no entrance. Voices are speaking on speakers hung high above; people describing their experiences as immigrants to our country – something that Agha knows all too well, having moved to Northern Texas in 1999. While the adorable white house is beckoning, it does not allow you access – and you’re left floating outside it amongst the shadows (much like people that are sadly displaced, looking to resettle, trying to find safety or asylum).
Agha describes her work as “a contemplation on the nature of boundaries and alienation” – and this description is apt. One of the things that her work called to my mind was Islamic decorative screens, often used to denote space, or cover windows and other openings. In fact, having spent an inordinate amount of time in the Toledo Museum of Art, I immediately thought of one of their recent acquisitions – on view all the way at the other end of the building, this Zigzag Jali (Screen), from Mughal India.
Made of red sandstone, this 400-year old stone window screen features the kind of sophisticated design and geometric precision that inspired Agha’s work. Featuring perfectly arranged interlocking octagons and pentagons, it was most likely a window of the Emperor’s palace. I can now imagine the beautiful shadows it must of cast on the walls, as the light shifted throughout the day. But like the mosque, the palace was also a place entirely off-limits to most people, certainly most women. Agha’s work forces us to think about the inherent power structures often concealed in these beautiful designs, and the limitations they impose, even today.
Toledo Museum of Art
Oct. 19, 2019 — Feb. 9, 2020