She found out via email. In late November, Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha was sitting at her computer when a message popped up on her screen. It contained two images.

One of them was of her award-winning installation “Intersections,” which won the coveted ArtPrize just three years earlier. The other was of a markedly similar but unattributed piece in the “Stories of the Bible” exhibit at the newly opened Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

The exhibition from the Museum of the Bible. (Photo by Ashley Nguyen)
The exhibition from the Museum of the Bible. (Photo by Ashley Nguyen)

“I felt gutted, just devastated,” Agha says of the moment. The two images revealed installations that were alarmingly similar, both large metal cubes that use a single light source to project patterned shadows on surrounding walls. Agha’s installation uses Islamic motifs and geometric designs inspired from mosques in her native Lahore. The Museum of the Bible’s very similar rendition uses verses from the Hebrew Bible.

“I know I can’t prove plagiarism,” Agha admits, noting that since the piece hasn’t been attributed, there is no way to gauge the artist’s influences.

For their part, the Museum of the Bible seems to see little cause for concern. The museum worked with BRC Imagination Arts to produce its exhibits, and when asked about the similarities between the two works, the organization’s founder, Bob Rogers, sent a long list of other artists who have used a single light projection through metal.

Some seemed slightly similar, others not at all so. The museum’s implication was clear: There was nothing particularly original or unique about Agha’s “Intersections,” therefore there was nothing problematic with the museum’s piece.

For the museum, adding an attribution to the piece would “be a distraction,” spokesperson Heather Cirmo says.

“The Museum of the Bible is a huge collaborative effort,” Cirmo says, an attribution would draw away from the fact that “it’s all about the Bible, not about the people who contributed.”

Religion and inclusivity

Agha saw resemblances between the two works, but that wasn’t the only thing that bothered her. Agha’s piece, “Intersections,” was made to promote inclusivity. The Museum of the Bible says it exists to “invite all people to engage with the history, impact and narrative of the Bible,” a text used largely in Christianity. The museum also focuses on the Hebrew Bible, which is used in Judaism and, among Christians, is known as the Old Testament.

The $500-million museum was also funded by evangelical Christians. One of the museum’s primary donors is Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores that gained national attention when the company went to the Supreme Court, arguing that it should not be required to provide female employees no-cost access to contraception if it violated religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby president Steve Green is chairman of the museum’s board, which is almost entirely evangelical.

The idea behind the museum’s work is far different from what Agha had in mind when she created “Intersections.”

The piece in the Museum of the Bible is “just relevant to one faith, whereas I wanted to include everyone, draw everyone in,” the artist explained.

There is a particular tragic irony in Agha’s predicament. As a female artist in her native Pakistan, she confronted similar conundrums, a hemming in by fundamentalists who believed in singular truths and branded the artistic project of questioning them subversive. In the America of 2017, she confronts a second silencing, where the power of a large corporation — Hobby Lobby — and the museum it has erected, can use the power of another fundamentalism to appropriate her ideas and hide behind technicalities.

Neither seems to understand that in Agha’s case, putting her name next to her work has never been an act of egoism, but one of courage. “Intersections” is a dogged reiteration of the beauty of building bridges in a world of warring truths.

Art and attribution

The issue of attribution is crucial for fine artists like Agha.

“When artists use each other methodologies, they credit them,” Agha explains. “It’s a matter of artistic ethics to credit the work of other artists who have influenced our work.”

This implicit code of ethics, of giving credit and mentioning those that came before, lubricates the exchange of ideas that is crucial to art, while deterring near plagiarisms that use identical concepts but change a few things to remain legally unassailable.

The latter seems to have been at play, at least on some level, in the “Stories of the Bible” installation at the museum. The ideas for the piece were generated in or after 2014–2015, just when Agha’s “Intersections” was getting the most attention in media and in exhibitions around the world.

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