During a recent "Instagram-friendly" press preview at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum, Sona Datta, the curator of South Asian Art who joined the museum in 2014 following her eight-year tenure as a art historian and curator specializing in the visual culture of South Asia at the British Museum, London, spoke about the museum's new immersive art installation by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha entitled Intersections.
The new installation located in the Wheatland Family Gallery on the second floor just off of the museum's East India Marine Hall, consists simply of a five-foot laser-cut wooden cube painted black with the same pattern repeating on all six sides. Suspended in the center of the gallery, when illuminated from within by a single, bright light inside the cube, intricately patterned shadows are cast onto the floor, the ceiling, the walls and the gallery visitors. These patterns of shadow and light "invite viewers to confront the contradictory nature of all intersections while simultaneously exploring boundaries."
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain was originally built in the 9th century as a castle fortress called the Alcazaba, The first historical reference to the structure's existence dates from the 9th century when it is believed Sawwar ben Hamdun took refuge there in 889 during the fights between Muslims and muwalladins - Christians who converted to the Islam and lived among the Muslims. Located on the bank of the river Darro to the west of the city of Granada on top of the hill al-Sabika, the Alhambra was completed towards the end of the Muslim rule of Spain by Yusuf I (1333–1353) and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353–1391.) A reflection of the culture of the last centuries of the Moorish rule of Al Andalus, it is a place where artists and intellectuals took refuge as the Reconquista by Spanish Christians won victories over Al Andalus.
A testament to Moorish culture in Spain and the skills of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian artisans, craftsmen, and builders of their era, Agha's own visit to the Alhambra - where every surface is covered with complex, interlacing designs of Islamic art - caused her to reflect upon her own childhood in Lahore, Pakistan where culture dictated that women were excluded from the mosque which was the territory of men only while women prayed at home. In visiting the Alhambra, "... the sense of wonder and awe she felt at the beauty of Islamic sacred spaces was countered by a sense of exclusion because of the gender segregation that exists in Pakistan where as a girl growing up, she couldn't enter the mosque," said Datta during her opening remarks. "Now living in Indiana, Agha straddles two cultures for when she moved to America as an adult she felt immediately welcomed as a woman but excluded as a Muslim. It was these categorizations and her desire to overcome and transcend them that really is the motivation for this sort of work."
As the artist herself said during a previous installation of Interceptions at the Rice Gallery in Houston, Texas in late 2015: "The project takes the seminal experience of exclusion as a woman from a space of community and creativity such as a Mosque and translates the complex expressions of both wonder and exclusion that have been my experience while growing up in Pakistan. The wooden frieze emulates a pattern from the Alhambra, which was poised at the intersection of history, culture, and art and was a place where Islamic and Western discourses, met and coexisted in harmony and served as a testament to the symbiosis of difference. For me the familiarity of the space visited at the Alhambra Palace and the memories of another time and place from my past, coalesced in creating this project. This installation project relies on the purity and inner symmetry of geometric design, the interpretation of the cast shadows and the viewer’s presence within a public space."
"The power of the piece is kind of happening upon it - just walking into it and being in it. You're bathed in light and shadow, and you become part of the work," said Datta. "I was just completely mesmerized by it. The thing I like about this work is that it riffs off Islamic traditions, but you don't have to know anything about South Asia or Islamic art to completely immerse yourself in it."
Datta is absolutely right as during the press preview, that's exactly what those of us in attendance did. Following her opening remarks, we were led into the darkened gallery where we all gathered around the cube whose presence was keenly felt even though its light inside had yet to be illuminated.
When the 800-watt halogen light bulb centered in the cube was switched on, the gallery was immediately converted into a work of art consisting of intricate shadows surrounding us on all sides while the cube itself seemed to simply float benevolently in the center of the room knowing full well the power that it emitted.
After we'd all had a chance to take a good deal of photos with everyone in the room, we filed out and then re-entered the room individually or with a companion in order to spend a little one-on-one time with the cube and the shadows and the wonder of it all.
While waiting my own turn to go back in with my daughter Amanda who had accompanied me to the press preview, I took a photo or two of some of the others who were in attendance as they took their own photos of Intersections. On the left are several of the invited Instagrammers - burtola (standing) and _madickey_ (kneeling in the doorway) - both of whom have quite the following and were more than qualified to help get the word out about this great new installation. The gentleman taking the photo of the cube on the right was a big help when I couldn't for the life of me remember the name of the Crane Estate while talking to another attendee about the Trustees of Reservations but do you think I got his name? Nope. Sigh. My mind just ain't what it used to be!
Then it was our turn to step into the gallery by ourselves and what a wonderful experience it was to be in the room with just the two of us as we submerged ourselves in the shadowy beauty of Intersections with its intricate simplicity. I'm going to shut up now and just let you enjoy the photos which really don't do the feeling of this installation justice but might inspire you to take a trip up to Salem to visit it on your own.
No matter which direction one looks at Intersections from, it's a fabulous experience to be in the room with the cube and the beauty that it emits in so many directions. I'll be honest, I don't "get" a lot of art but in this case, I don't feel like I had to "get" anything at all. All I had to do was simply experience and enjoy the cube, the shadows, the gallery as a whole and I truly did.
Part of the PEM's Present Tense Initiative - a dynamic, interdisciplinary exploration of contemporary art and culture that celebrates the central role that creative expression plays in shaping our world today - Intersections by Anila Quayyum Agha - which is definitely one of my very favorite installations in a museum that continually impresses me with one great art installation after another - will be on view from February 6 through July 10 at the Peabody Essex Museum in downtown Salem, Massachusetts. Go and see it, you'll be glad you did!
For more information on Intersections, visit pem.org or to learn more about the artist, you can check her out at Twitter, Vimeo, Instagram, or Facebook!
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