3 April 2023

In pictures: All the Flowers Are for Me

Discover the meaning behind Anila Quayyum Agha's stunning art pieces.

By Ellie Wilson

Visitor admiring a large, laser-cut steel cube suspended from the gallery ceiling

Our new exhibition at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art is a stunning, thought-provoking installation by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha.

Agha's pieces All the Flowers Are for Me and Stolen Moments I and II use botanical motifs and Islamic art and architecture to invite viewers in and explore the idea of binaries: light and heavy, dark and light.

All the Flowers Are for Me is a spectacular turquoise 1.5m square steel cube, laser-cut with elaborate South and Central Asian patterns of flowers and plants, all suspended from the gallery ceiling. Bright lights inside the cube throw intricate shadows onto the deep orange walls. The shadows fall on visitors, making them part of the artwork.

The piece is inspired by Agha’s experience as a Pakistani woman growing up in the US.

'My work is about contradictions or dealing with contradictions. Growing up in Pakistan as a woman, and then immigrating to the US as a young adult: I felt like an outsider in both locales. Those experiences inspired me to create a space that reflects inclusivity.'

The cube's turquoise colour is inspired by lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone commonly found in Pakistan and Afghanistan and often seen in South Asian buildings and jewellery. Painted a deep orange, the gallery walls reflect shades of bright to dark orange, evoking danger as well as hope: a message that the natural world is under serious threat.

The layered shadows suggest a religious space like a mosque, synagogue or church, while the flowery carvings echo the way Agha has noticed South Asian women bring nature into their homes when they’re discouraged from being a part of public life.

'When I was growing up, women’s place was in the home: you were discouraged from going outside the home to work or study. It’s happening again now in Afghanistan. Women often are the first casualty of any political action.'

Wide shot: a blue glowing cube hangs suspended in a gallery, throwing intricate shadows onto the orange walls and wooden floor
All the Flowers Are for Me © RBG Kew

The light passes through the walls of the cube, travelling as far as it can without obstruction. It's a metaphor for education; ensuring that educating women makes the world a better place. Agha dedicated the first version of All the Flowers Are for Me to her late mother; this piece is dedicated to everyone who identifies as a woman.

'Build your own stories. The title All the Flowers Are for Me means if you’re walking around here, it’s for you.'

A Pakistani woman with short hair in a striped blouse stands smiling against a yellow wall, next to a dramatically lit wall installation of metal flower silhouettes which cast shadows on the wall

Stolen Moments I and II

On display in adjoining rooms, Agha's pieces Stolen Moments I and II were inspired by the Great Piece of Turf (1503), an early example of botanical art by Albrecht Dürer showing plants in their messy natural state, which still influences botanical art today.

Lit by spotlights, the plant templates cut in polished steel cast crisp shadows on the walls behind them. On the opposite wall, a shimmering reflection appears.

A young woman stands gazing at a collection of steel plant and flower shapes hung on a green-painted wall. A yellow-painted room can be seen through a doorway behind her.
All the Flowers Are for Me (Stolen Moments) © RBG Kew

Agha combines shapes inspired by Dürer’s work with shapes from Islamic art, including patterns based on William Morris designs. The works are a reflection on colonialism and the erasure of Eastern influences – in art, throughout history, as a threat to nature, and more immediately as a factor of which nations will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change.

'Climate change is affecting the same places in the world that were colonised and paid a large price through loss of labour and resources. Nature is one of the casualties of our advancement to more and more riches. These pieces are the ghosts of what we might see in the future.'

A woman with dark cropped hair and a striped blouse stands gazing at a shimmering reflection of plant and flower shapes on a bright green wallwall

Once again, Agha uses light to explore contradictions.

'The meaning is dark, but it looks so beautiful. It's like an x-ray of what the botanical world could become: seeing it only through slides.'

All the Flowers Are for Me and Stolen Moments I and II are on display at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery, Kew Gardens from 1 April - 17 September 2023. Don’t miss the attached botanical art exhibits, Plants of the Qur’ān and The Wonderful World of Water Plants - featuring the record-breaking giant waterlily discovered at Kew and named new to science in 2022. Entry is included with your ticket to the gardens, so step inside and explore.

Wide shot: a blue glowing cube hangs suspended in a gallery, throwing intricate shadows onto the orange walls and wooden floor

All the Flowers are For Me

Explore acclaimed artist Anila Quayyum Agha's take on life as a Pakistani-American woman

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