Home Truths

Pakistani Artist Sameen Agha wins the Sovereign Asian Art Prize for a work that questions the romanticised idea of a home
The Sovereign Art Prize winning work by Pakistani Artist Sameen Agha
The Sovereign Art Prize winning work by Pakistani Artist Sameen Agha

Feels like home. Home is where the heart is. Homeward bound. The word ‘home’ has universally evoked warmth and comfort. Not for Sameen Agha, though. The 31-year-old Pakistani artist challenges the romanticised idea in her sculpture series, titled Home is a Terrible Place to Love. “This is a theme I have been working with since the beginning of my practice.

The Sovereign Art Prize winning work by Pakistani Artist Sameen Agha
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When I was a student, I would make cute drawings of different houses, which were essentially images of houses we see in Disney films. It struck me that we are always fantasising about the idea of home, but the reality is often quite different,” says Agha, who bagged this year’s Sovereign Asian Art Prize, the annual award for contemporary art in the Asia-Pacific region, carrying a prize of $30,000.

The winning piece from the series, quite literally, deconstructs a home. Imagine the simplest rendition of a house a cuboid topped with a pyramid—and cut it along the edges on one side. The walls fall down flat, and Agha lays bare the structure for visitors to look inside. She captures the collapse in motion.

The dexterity of an artist lies in imagination and execution. Agha scores high on both. To convey her alternate idea of home, which converges on its discomfort and limitations, she has rendered the dismantled house in red marble, also known as the noshehra pink marble in the subcontinent.

The connection between the animate and inanimate is a lifelong obsession with artists; think abstract art puppeteer Basil Twist’s The Rite of Spring, an underwater ballet without dancers. In a similar way, Agha’s sculpture has a flesh-like appearance due to the white lines resembling veins superimposed on its noshehra base, lending the work the quality of a living organism. “I love that marble seems heavy, harsh and strong, which it is, but it is also brittle and sensitive. It is quite hard working with.

an untitled work from Home is a Terrible Place to Love

That itself makes for a strong narrative,” she says. To her, the noshehra in particular looks like bruised skin. It has a lot of grains. It is not fine; it has flaws like this piece. “You’ll see a lot of broken parts that have been joined repeatedly to symbolise resilience. Visually, the material may seem even grotesque, but the forms I make are innocent.”

The series also features sculptures of toy horses and flower vases among objects associated with home. These will be exhibited at her upcoming first solo show at London’s Indigo+Madder gallery in July this year.

Agha’s work is meant to resonate with everyone, particularly women.

“I think a sense of displacement persists throughout a woman’s life. She first moves out of her parents’ house for studies or a job, then moves into her husband’s house where she starts her life from scratch. She may even move into her children’s homes later in life,” the artist says.

Agha’s philosophy of home reflects female transition: as the woman’s physical home keeps changing, so does her idea of it. “Eventually, she starts comforting herself with the belief that the home is in her body. When I am talking about home, I am talking about domestic space, our relationships and bodies,” Agha adds.

That is what makes it so personal. Agha has moved around quite a bit herself. Her parents were Communication Design students at Lahore’s National College of Arts. She followed in their footsteps, but realised that fine arts is her true calling. She walked into a difficult marriage right after college, and walked out two years later.

The Sovereign Art Prize winning work by Pakistani Artist Sameen Agha
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She set up her own home in Lahore, but the pandemic forced her back into living with her parents again. She spent the last year in Karachi for work, and then moved back to her hometown again. “I don’t know when I will have to change homes again.

With all this back and forth, I now find comfort in knowing that there will never be a permanent settlement, at least for me. Initially, I was struggling to get that sense of belonging; not anymore. I have realised that no matter where I am, I do not miss anything. It has become easy for me to simply stay in the present and enjoy that,” she says. It is Agha homing in on her truth.

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