All The Flowers Are For Me
Artist: Anila Quayyum Agha
Year Created: 2016
Materials: Lacquered Steel, Halogen Bulb
Dimensions: 6ft square (I am estimating here)
Gallery/Museum: Peabody Essex Museum
Viewed: August 23, 2017
When I sit with a work, I try to get beyond what I think about a work, and into how I feel about a work.
This inevitably takes me much longer.
My mind is immediately accessible to me; my feelings, not so much.
I sat with this work for about thirty minutes, in the spot where I took this photo, on a gallery stool provided by the Peabody Essex Museum, where this work hangs.
The thoughts always come first. I wondered if the creamy yellow of the walls and ceiling was chosen by the artist, or if the room was always this color. I suspect the artist chose this color combination, and it reminded me of the 70’s trend in the US to paint a house the same yellow, with chocolate brown trim and shutters. My own grandmother’s house had this color scheme, and the lacy foil reminds me of the many doilies that were placed on the arms and headrests of upholstered furniture.
In fact, the entire work gave me an impression of femininity; it seems decorative, I think. But as soon as I think that, I sense the embedded misogyny of that comment. When a woman is “decorative,” it is implied that she has no use besides looking good on some man’s arm, that she has no “true purpose” (as defined by the little green army men who both run Forbes magazine and populate its pages).
“Decorative” is almost a slur in the fine-art world, denoting something that doesn’t have the ambition or scope of fine art. “Decorative” is what you buy at Ikea. “Decorative” is when you’re the kind of person who chooses art based on whether it matches your couch.
Certainly no one could fault the scope or ambition of Agha’s work here; you might think “lampshade, ladies’ boudoir,” but you’d be wrong. What lady ever dared to take up this much space? What lady dares to be her true size and brightness?
Do not dare to take up space, to project your light, this world says to women.
This work takes up the whole damn room and fills it with flowers. It is both unapologetically feminine and unapologetically powerful; the central sculpture is, after all, lacquered steel in black, the most don’t-fuck-with-me color in a woman’s wardrobe.
That’s not what I was thinking as I sat there; I was trying not to think, but to feel.
I felt like this work was doing something to me. Since my partner died in March of this year, I have felt a tight, heavy sensation in my chest nearly every day. Some days it is bad; some days it feels like my sternum is burning from the inside. My heart hiccups in my chest. There is nothing medically wrong with me; I have visited my doctor three separate times, been hooked up to wires and had blood drawn.
I felt like this piece might be beaming light/flowers into the heavy iron cube that is not really there, they tell me, that is not really there in my chest. Like the piece was a kind of treatment; that it was trying to heal me.
I sat there and didn’t think for a long time.