Harbeer Sandhu
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Art Star Returns to Houston, Triumphant

Art Star Returns to Houston, Triumphant
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The way it plays with space and light and shadow, it’s no surprise that the genesis of Anila Quayyam Agha’s prestigious Art Prize winning piece “Intersections,” which is on view at the Rice Gallery from September 24 - December 6, was at Spain’s famed Alhambra palaces. Of the many “intersections” implied by the title, the intersection of art and architecture is obvious.

“I wanted to recreate the awe and wonder that I saw on the faces of the tourists at the palace,” Agha says, “to evoke the sublime.”

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Agha, who lived in Houston from 2024-2008 as an artist in residence at the Houston Center For Contemporary Craft while teaching at HCC, took pieces of the geometric patterns she observed at the palace and remixed them — a lattice pattern from floor tiles, a curving corner pattern from a door — rearranged them into a square pattern that is drawn entirely and exclusively from appropriated patterns but is unique and singular unto itself. This particular pattern, this intersection, exists only in this piece. The pattern was then laser cut in wood and used to form the six faces of a cube, which is suspended from the ceiling with a lightbulb in the center, casting shadows of the patterns on the gallery walls, floor, and ceiling.

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The effect of this ornate black cube defying gravity — its weight captivating visitors’ attention, mouths agape, its gravitational pull propelling audiences into a centrifugal orbit like the Kaaba in Mecca, bathing them in light and shadow — is indeed sublime. So much so that some concerned whack job visitors in Grand Rapids, MI, where the piece was first shown upon winning both the juried and the public grand prizes in the 2024 ArtPrize, accused her of trying to convert Christians to Islam.

To Agha, the piece is about the dialog between East and West, as well as something about women being kept “inside” and thus excluded from the public sphere. That’s all well and good, but with so many layers, the piece begs the question, what is in fact “inside” and what is “out?”

At the center lies a lightbulb, beyond that lies the space enclosed by the cube, then the cube, itself, then the space enclosed by the gallery walls, and finally the gallery walls, themselves. The elements of light and shadow (not-light) permeate these voids, further complicating any facile reading, and if we go back to the center, the lightbulb itself is a void — a hollow glass enclosure containing a filament vibrating in a way that creates light. And, as Agha herself points out, audiences further activate the space, casting their own shadows — rendered anonymous by the loss of color and texture — two-dimensional silhouettes like those on the walls of Plato’s Cave.

This is one piece that has to be experienced — words can’t do it justice and photos can only capture what you’re missing. And if repetitive patterns on unusual planes in the Rice Gallery space seem familiar, you might be thinking back to the time that Gunila Klingberg covered the floor in a mandala made from local corporate brands and logos.

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