Connected \\ July 26, 2017

Responding to Anila Agha

Sharing power is not easy. Those with it are afraid that if others are empowered they will become less powerful. People do not realize that equality benefits EVERYONE.
—Anonymous PEM visitor, 2017

All the Flowers Are for Me is a variation on Anila Quayyam Agha’s award-winning 2014 work Intersections, which PEM presented in 2016. Both sculptures are comprised of a laser-cut steel cube, lit from within by a single light bulb that casts intricate shadows in all directions, bathing every surface and person in its unifying pattern. As its title suggests, All the Flowers Are for Me is composed of organic floral and foliate shapes that circle and swirl around the cube like clinging vines.

When members of the exhibition team were planning the installation earlier this year, they decided to let visitors do most of the talking. A recent PEM acquisition, Agha’s work is installed in the Wheatland Gallery through the end of 2017.

For the duration of the exhibition, visitors can respond to rotating pairs of questions that engage with pressing contemporary issues that inspired the artist—equality, empowerment, inclusion and privacy.

Set of questions for visitors

The first set of questions asked visitors to reflect on women and their roles in society. More than 800 responses came in between May 20 and the end of June. One question has been especially popular: Which women, other than your mother, do you admire and why?

Visitors recalled mentors, friends, historical trailblazers and contemporary leaders:

Amelia Earhart: Strong, independent, true to her heart.

Laverne Cox, Malala Yousafzai, women of color who have stood up & changed the world

Dr. Maya Angelou for her wisdom and strength against adversity.

My great aunt, Irene, who owned a car dealership as long ago as the 1940s. Very cool lady!

Marlee Matlin. She is my idol. She paved her own way in a hearing world as a Deaf woman.
—Jill Meredith

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, voice of justice on U.S. Supreme Court

Eleanor Roosevelt – she was a strong, independent thinker with a huge heart & commitment to service

Visitors also grappled with the issue of female empowerment, and why, even in 2017, women are still frequently seen as inferior to their male counterparts. They spoke of systemic and implicit biases, fear of change and the struggle for civil rights:

To challenge entrenched power systems is a scary undertaking. Anything that challenges what our society is based upon seems to give people the impression that the structure is ‘crumbling.’

Somehow, from a young age, girls are ingrained to behave and represent themselves in a delicate and reserved manner. No matter how much the previous generation admired women who took charge and broke molds, we inadvertently handicap our daughters. How have we not learned to change our perspectives? Our patterns? How? What can we do to stop ourselves from perpetuating this debilitating cycle?

Because a woman’s voice still holds less value in society. When women speak about the issues affecting them, they are dismissed or not taken seriously.

We’re told we need to be saved. We’re told that other women’s success comes at our detriment. But when one woman succeeds, we all succeed. Women are driven, strong, and incredibly capable.

If these questions do not immediately seem to resonate with Agha’s luminous sculptural installation, it is because of the way the artist has seamlessly woven questions of inclusion and exclusion into a work that underscores our common humanity.

Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Agha now lives in the US. In a conversation with museum staff earlier this year, she described how women from conservative families in Pakistan—and other countries—who are confined to their homes connect to the natural world through stylized floral motifs. “All the Flowers Are for Me is a sort of rebellion for women. It is about reclaiming a private space, a space where women would feel welcome, which they could also open up to others,” she said.

Agha’s work opens up a space where all of us, regardless of gender, race, age or nationality, can feel welcome. It provides a sanctuary in which we can contemplate shifting notions of justice and care, and where we can consider the profound political and social changes that are occurring in our country and around the world. All the Flowers Are for Me also points to the opportunities and beauty that exist in the long shadows cast by free and open artistic and intellectual exchange and to the transformative potential of opening up—our space, our thoughts, ourselves—and sharing with others.


The next set of questions, which focuses on our connections to nature, is posted in the galleries now. Come experience All the Flowers Are for Me and join the conversation!

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