Intersections in Middle America

by Mara Naselli

_MG_2768 - Version 2When my children entered the gallery at the Grand Rapids Art Museum that contained Anila Quayyum Agha's installation work, Intersections, they took off at a run. The sound of their little feet filled the space. I felt that cinch of parental panic and scanned the room for what they might inadvertently destroy. The room was empty. Empty in the sense that it contained no objects, save the large wood cube illuminated by single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. The gallery, about thirty-feet square, was transformed into something larger by the tapestry of shadow projected onto the walls. I hesitate to use the word sacred, but it was impossible not to feel a certain vastness. The contrast of light and dark created an immersive architecture. “You should have seen it when they were installing it,” said the security guard. “The whole room spun.”


Every September since 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has hosted an open art contest called ArtPrize. Anyone can enter. Anyone can judge. Anyone can win. ArtPrize winners are elected by popular vote. The rules have been adjusted each year, but the basic idea has remained intact: bring art to the public, let the public judge art.

Grand Rapids is a small, quiet city. But when ArtPrize opens, art is everywhere: parking lots, rooftops, bars, bridges, abandoned buildings, churches, even the river. This reserved city transforms into a minimetropolis of raucous, unedited expression.

The cultural context of ArtPrize—that is, the culture of Grand Rapids, Michigan—bears mentioning. When ArtPrize began, I had just moved here from Chicago, and so I watched with some interest at what looked like a large-scale democratic experiment. Some called it a rich kid's art party (the founder, Rick DeVos, is the grandson of the co-founder of Amway). But I thought of it as an experiment in civic discourse, where good art and bad art would duke it out through the intelligent discernment of public opinion. In many ways, the location of ArtPrize made perfect sense. The city has a venerable history in furniture making and design. There's a vibrant arts community here, a grassroots artists' collective, a sculpture garden, a symphony, a ballet, an opera, and a fine art museum—all this in a town of fewer than 200,000. The community in many ways is steeped in arts funded by local philanthropic families such as the DeVoses. Grand Rapids is also conservative and Christian. The fact that ArtPrize was in a very red region of a blue state made the democratic aspect of the contest all the more interesting to me. Taste, culture, and politics would converge as the public would play patron.

As a newcomer to Grand Rapids, I was struck by how often the Protestant Christian culture found expression in places I didn't expect: The young woman at the coffee house who asked if she could pray for me. The block parties that open with prayer. The impoverished public schools. The exceptionally well-funded Christian schools. A verse stenciled onto an interior wall of our house by the previous owners and attributed to God. The Christian Halloween book that showed up in our little free library (“I scoop the mushy gushies like God cleans out my sin. When he says 'I forgive you,' I smile a great big grin”).

It is not all like this. There are liberal Christians and Christians who don't publicly profess their faith and identity. There are also, in smaller numbers, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhists, and atheists. Nevertheless, the dominant religious and cultural note here is what a friend of mine calls the assumption of sameness. It resonates with that American nostalgia for “simpler” times in which everyone celebrated Christmas, everyone consented to a Spaghetti Western sense of justice, and everyone knew what family values meant without having to spell it all out.

Grand Rapids' conservative culture is in step with the emergent American nationalism. Sarah Palin launched her book tour here. Libertarian Justin Amash is our representative. And the DeVos family, which has funded virtually every medical, educational, and arts institution in Grand Rapids, has also funded major conservative causes, including Citizen's United, Proposition 8, and Scott Walker's recall campaign, to name a few. Erik Prince, from Holland, Michigan, founded the notorious mercenary company Blackwater Worldwide (renamed Xe Services and then Academi). He is also Rick DeVos's uncle. In truth, Erik Prince, Citizen's United, and a Christian Halloween children's book have nothing to do with ArtPrize. But they do have something to do with the popular vote in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They illumine one dimension of the culture in which ArtPrize resides: conservative Christian corporatism.

Artist Mia Tavonatti tapped into this in ArtPrize 2011, when she won the popular vote with a 9 x 13 foot glass mosaic of Jesus on the cross. It was not a great work of art. Nor was it universally embraced—for many, Crucifixion's win was an embarrassment. But the hunky Jesus on the cross amidst parting purple clouds spoke to a significant part of the community here and they made their vote heard. Mia Tavonatti had won second place in the popular vote in 2010 with a huge mosaic picturing the artist gripping a rock framed by a swirl of white drapery in a cerulean tide pool). In two years, ArtPrize voters had awarded Tavonatti $350,000.

So that's a lot of background. But it sets the scene. Because in some sense, ArtPrize is not about art as such, but about art in this particular place at this particular time. ArtPrize is documentary. It measures the cultural taste and temperature of this small corner of middle America.


Back in the gallery, my children made shadows with their hands in the maze of pattern projected onto the walls. Children do not have the spacial awareness of adults. I do not think they noticed how enveloped we were, how our bodies were drawn in and immersed in the space. I do not think they noticed the brocade of pattern projected onto their own bodies.

Agha was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and teaches drawing at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. As a girl in Pakistan, she was prohibited from entering mosques. The domestic was apart from the sacred. Women were to pray at home.

Agha designed her cube from patterns she photographed in the Moorish fortress and palace at Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The original fortress was built in the ninth century, but it the palace itself wasn't completed until the fourteenth century, near the end of Moorish rule in southern Spain under the Nasrid dynasty. The source is significant for Agha—Alhambra is itself a place of intersection between Islam and Europe. It was also a domestic space.

“Islam is about rising above lived experience,” she told me, “looking for certitude.” But in Alhambra, domestic lived experience had been made sublime. Agha spent an entire day at the palace and took more than one thousand photographs of the arabesque patterns that decorate even the most mundane spaces: ceiling tiles, floor tiles, wall tiles, wooden door jams, beadpatterns, balcony railings, cornices. She also noticed the expressions of other tourists as they looked around, immersed in domestic ornament. “There was this huge feeling of awe on people's faces,” she said in one interview. “It was like a religious or spiritual experience that you could see how people could feel without thinking back on what their own faith was.”

Intersections is structurally simple. It's essentially a lantern. But in the light and shadow Agha creates an architecture, and just as architecture shapes how we move through a space, Agha's installation also draws our bodies in before we even have a chance to think about it. “The immersive quality was key to this,” she told me. And it is immersive. “Once you cross over that threshold of intimidation, then you are open to a lot of different things.”

More than one person has noted that the nearly inevitable choreography of a viewer looking at Intersections and walking around the cube mimics the path traveled by pilgrims to Mecca as they walk around the Ka'aba. “That was not my intent,” Agha told me when I asked. “My intent was to bring people together.”

I spent some time interviewing Tavonatti and her fans in 2011. I wanted to understand how Crucifixion spoke to them. There was something otherworldly about Tavonatti's Jesus, with all the clouds and the floating cross. But he was also eroticized—the composition of clouds and light drove the eye to his sex. Tavonatti's Jesus affirmed a sexually charged escapism. But it was anything but inclusive. Viewers either loved Crucifixion or dismissed it (I was enraged by it). Agha's Intersections is different. All bodies are drawn in. All bodies can move. All bodies, in their messy, bodily lived experience, can be immersed, together, in a beautiful, shared space. There is no narrative to defend. There is no escape. It is simple, aesthetic cohesion.

Agha's Intersections won the popular vote for ArtPrize 2014. The jurors split their top award between two artist. Sonja Clark won for The Hair Craft Project—a collaborative series of large portrait photographs of twelve hairdressers and their work. The other half of the top juried award went to Agha for Intersections. For the first time in ArtPrize, the juried and popular vote agreed.