Hamra Abbas engages with ideas that many Pakistani artists would fear to tread. But she is nuanced and witty in her take on these issues.
Artist Hamra Abbas is an eclectic and versatile installation art practitioner. Having only recently moved back to Lahore, her home city, she has lived for extended periods in Boston, Islamabad and Berlin, and has travelled to and worked in Istanbul so frequently that she considers it a home away from home.Her itinerant life informs her work and reflects in her intrepid use of diverse mediums that include paper, play dough, wood, clay, silicone, stained glass, fiberglass, photography, digital imaging, performance, video and sound. Her recent exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai titled ‘Bodies’ (September 18-November 10, 2016) investigates the chasm between faith, religion, systems of belief and spirituality through the use of devotional icons, which in fact touches on the dichotomy of misrepresentation and ambiguities. Trained as a sculptor, Abbas sees everyday forms with the sensibility of artistic invention and objects that convey a set of semiotics are transmuted because of a few simple changes like scale, texture and color. The group of objects, or ‘Barakah Gifts’ that Abbas puts out in her show are intensely colored — shiny plastic forms culled from the holy sites of Makkah and Medinah. In their kitsch luminosity the objects thus assimilated suggest paraphilia, objects of fetish rather than devotional icons. It speaks of varied readings of sacred literature and the interaction between commercialization and religious sentiment, specially at holy sites where the objects are sold as hallowed memorabilia.
As Abbas says she “uses colour here as a metaphor for the act of seeing, and consequently for experience”
The colored prayer rugs, also arranged together and hung on the wall rather than laid on the floor as they are meant, create contradictions and opacities in the representation of the object. The idea of color as a transformational tool is highlighted in Abbas’s work; a notion, she introduced into her oeuvre in 2014 when she created a series depicting the black cube of the Kaaba, but superimposed with cubes of bright color — a simulated image that presupposes human or mechanical printing errors by which the layers of color that constitute black shift away from each other. Thus the solidity of the mass becomes tenuous and the focus strays from the starkness and unity of the cube. But it also ties in with Hamra’s observation that there are fewer prayer rugs to be found with the image of Kaaba, unlike a few years ago; a strange and inexplicable phenomenon.
In another work, footwear is used to speak on the subject of consecration. For any Muslim, the idea of veneration in a holy site begins with removing shoes. The image draws in the notions of purity and ‘pakeezgi’, a word that has no correspondence in the English language because it overrides physical cleanliness and suggests a cleansing of the soul. But the shoes also have distinct connotations in Pakistan where we are reminded that shoes are more often than not stolen from outside mosques and places of prayer.
Hamra Abbas has a history of engaging with themes that touch upon the nuances of religion as it is preached and practiced in Pakistan and its implications in the lives of ordinary people. In 2007, she created a suspended wooden maze as an installation that had to be entered to hear the sound of children reading the Quran. Titled, Read it signified the aura of local ‘madrassahs’ where children in Pakistan are sent to read and memorize the Quran. But instead of coherent words, the children’s voices mingle to create a disharmonious cacophony. Hamra Abbas’s uses a unique tongue-in-cheek modus operandi throughout her practice. Inventive and profound, she is always subtle and layered in her approach, inventive in her ideas and diverse in her methods of engaging with her environment.