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Ways of seeing

Anila Quayyum Agha’s stunning installation ‘Intersections’ is at the cornerstone of ‘Imagine, South Asia’, at the historic Peabody Essex Museum

Ways of seeing
The immersive and inclusive installation.

In an age of divisiveness and conflict, with media attention focused on power politics and high profile acts of violence, Imagine, South Asia, a weekend-long series of events at the Peabody Essex Museum was a welcome reminder of the healing and inclusive power of the arts.

“Intersections”, an installation by award-winning Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha, a 1991 graduate of the National College of Arts, anchored the weekend of discussions, music, dance and interactive workshops over February 6-7, 2016.

Stunning in its simplicity of concept and contrasting intricacy of patterns, the immersive piece will remain on view through July 10, 2016.

The work, envisaged as a space that that welcomes and embraces all those who enter it, regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or nationality, emerged from concepts that percolated in Agha’s mind for decades. Excluded from public spaces while growing up in Pakistan she has since moving to the US experienced the alienation of a migrant.

The single-room installation features a suspended cube (6.5 feet square) in the centre of the space. A single, 600-watt strong light bulb in the middle of the cube casts intricate, symmetrical patterns on the walls, ceiling and floor of the space.

Visitors stepping into the room are bathed in the light and shadows cast from the cube. Voices lower, movements slow down, as if it is indeed a sacred space. This is a piece to be experienced, one that touches even those who know nothing about Islamic or South Asian art or culture.

Agha, an Associate Professor of Drawing and Foundation Arts at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, Indiana, completed the original laser-cut wood installation in December 2013. At PEM, the dense black 600 lb steel version provides dramatic contrast to her delicate geometrical and floral filigree patterns, inspired originally by a visit to Alhambra, Spain.

The artisans who created Alhambra belonged to different religions, brought together by their ability to create beauty, as Agha points out. It was this experience that drew her to create her own artistic version of an inclusive place of beauty.

The patterns also reference Mughal architecture that is part of the common heritage of India and Pakistan — like the latticed marble from behind which Humayun’s favourite wife Nur Jehan would whisper counsel in the king’s ear as he held court at his magnificent fort in Lahore.

Sona Datta draws attention to this in the documentary “Pakistan Unveiled“, the first episode of “Treasures of the Indus” (BBC,2015), that she wrote and narrated. The three-part documentary series delves into South Asia’s interconnected, multi-faith history, stemming from its ancient Indus Valley civilization and Buddhist heritage – both primarily in what became Pakistan. The series traces these influences to the Mughal Empire and the temples of south India.

The documentary premiered in the US at Imagine, South Asia. Panel discussions after each hour-long screening allowed audiences to interact with experts, filmmakers and artists. Besides Datta and Agha, speakers included BBC director Hugh Thompson, historian Ayesha Jalal, London-based Pakistani artist Faiza Butt, collector Nirmalya Kumar and Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense.

The need to affirm and embrace multiple identities — whether of individuals, communities or countries — rather than insisting on a single one, was a common theme for much of the discussion.

“This is not a museum built on plunder, but on trade,” says Sona Datta, PEM’s Curator of South Asian Art who accepted the post in 2013.

PEM houses one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Indian art, donated by North Shore businessman Chester Herwitz and his wife Davida. Visiting India in the early 1960s to buy accessories for the handbags they manufactured, they chanced upon the work of M.F. Husain and other artists.

Over the next 30 years, they developed friendships with Indian artists, acquiring over 3,000 pieces. Some 850 of these are now in PEM — including, besides Husain, works by Jamini Roy, Nasreen Mohamedi, S.H. Raza, Ravinder Reddy and Souza.

Datta wants to expand the Indian collection to work from around South Asia. As a British-born Bengali of Indian origin, she has a particular fascination for Pakistan due to the countries’ shared history and culture. As she says, “You can’t understand one without the other”.

Other events included a khayyal recital by Jawwad Noor, disciple of Shahid Parvez Khan, on the sitar, accompanied by tabla player Nitin Mitta. An alternative, participatory museum tour, Mi(s)guide, by Indian performing artist Mithu Sen led visitors through the galleries. Spouting nonsense-speak as she placed a crumpled tissue on a glass case or pulled off a jacket from a mannequin and tried it on, Sen clearly had fun unpicking museum etiquette.

The discussion “Sacred Spaces” featured an all-woman panel moderated by Kirun Kapur, with Anila Agha and London-based American journalist Carla Power, author of “If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” (Holt, New York 2015).

Islam is equated with the Middle East in the public perception, but there are more Muslims in South Asia, noted Kapur, founder of the Tannery Series, a local community arts organisation that put together the event.

Both Agha and Power have strong South Asian connections. Agha was born and raised in Lahore. Power has lived in India, visited Pakistan, and her book is an account of her year spent studying with the traditional Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi from India.

A sold-out two-hour long creative workshop conducted by Agha, Power and Kapur aimed at facilitating the participants (interestingly and coincidentally, all women) to create art that “accommodates contradiction and makes space for multiple possibilities”.

Embracing these contradictions and possibilities may be a way out of the current climate of conflict and violence, and in the US, a contentious presidential campaign.

There is clearly, as Carla Power says, a hunger for knowledge and information— which the media tend to flatten out and ignore.

Imagine, South Asia underlined the need for more fluid, inclusive ways of seeing and interacting — and how beauty and creativity emerge from conflict and adversity.

Beena Sarwar

beena sarwar
The author is a senior journalist and Editor Aman ki Asha.

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