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Hamra Abbas

Pakistani Contemporary Artist
Born 1976, Kuwait
Lives and works between Boston and Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Hamra Abbas’artistic practices include a wide range of media, from painting and paper collage to ephemeral soft plasticine sculpture and video. She plays humorously with customs, old traditions and conventions only to transform them into new works that are experienced both spatially and temporally. With a combination of traditional and contemporary tools, Abbas engages her viewers, both visually and intellectually, in an exercise of looking at artworks (like, religious sites) from a totally new perspective. Her artworks also strongly draw from the everyday conversations that she engages in.

Education

2004

Meisterschueler, Universitaet der Kuenst, Berlin

2002

MA (Visual Arts), National College of Arts, Lahore

1999

BFA (Sculpture), National College of Arts, Lahore

VIEW     Selected exhibitions     Text      Videos      Awards      Selected images      View all

LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Hamra Abbas

Centrality of religion and culture with its internal turbulences is central to her works

Having grown up witnessing the culture and tradition of Islam, Hamra Abbas’ works are suggestive of her deep and serious contemplation on religion and its inherent tensions. She questions the rudimentary reading, writing and instruction from the Quran imparted in the madrasahs by depicting the innocuousness of childhood experiences. The work “God Grows on Trees” is a digital print of a photograph of a tree along a road in Lahore, that are nailed with metal plates which reproduce the 99 names of God in Islamic tradition. Each photograph of the child in the madrasah that she clicks is representative of an identity of its own. Each face, making it as divine and realistic as possible, has its own story to narrate.Abbas’ choice of the figure “99” is symbolic of both its secular and sacred implications. The sacred number relates to the 99 names of Allah represented in diverse forms to describe God, which are portrayed through the graceful and divine faces of children in the miniature print. Also, the ubiquity of the number 99 is used in the incongruous context of a psychologically critical pricing point in consumer society. The portraits of children and their happy faces are depicted as a contrast to the complications of the culture evoking critical thinking on part of the viewers.

Hamra Abbas, God Grows on Trees, 2008, gouache on wasli, 1.37 x 1.18”

With a tinge of humor, the artist transforms the ancient texts into sculptures

Her artwork “Lessons on Love” are a sculptural representation of the erotic miniature paintings depicted in the ancient secular texts, such as the Kama Sutra. This particular artwork represents a paradoxical relationship between sex and war, which creates laughter and mockery. While transforming the ancient illustrations into life-size sculptures, Abbas comments on the foolery of the secular text which proclaims hunting to be one of the important social arts, and without its mastery one cannot achieve aesthetic or sexual pleasure. Undoubtedly, the artwork is amusing and playful at its face value, but it isn’t devoid of serious concerns related to the concept of “manhood”. Abbas upturns the notion of patriarchy on its head by interrogating the absurd conflation of sex with violence. By prioritizing “hunting” over “love” and making the former a prerequisite to attain the latter, the artist complicates the binaries of “love” and “violence”.

Hamra Abbas, Lesson on Love 3, 2007, plasticine, polystyrene and metal, dimensions variable

Re-interpretation of everyday iconic imageries of Islam is central to her artworks

For Abbas, there is nothing mundane and ordinary about the everyday, “as in reality, it is suffused with history, ideology and other evocative subtexts.” So, her artworks are deliberately produced in such a manner whereby scope of multiple readings becomes a possibility. A particular artwork can be suffused with an array of themes, ranging from notions of ritual cleansing attached to her parent country to other concerns related with race, memory and power. The artist deliberately uses the iconic images of Islam only to re-interpret, re-frame and transform the stereotypical and conventional traditions attached to the culture. The spatial and temporal aspects are kept intact in order to make the viewers understand the background with which the artist is playing with and mocking at. To take an example, “Paradise Bath” comes across as a re-interpretation of hamam adding an oriental touch to it. Hamra notoriously upturns the sacred idea of “purity” attached to the Islamic culture only to replace it with an exotic and sensual depiction of the hamam.

Hamra Abbas, Paradise Bath 1-9, 2009, archival pigment print, 41 x 30” each (set of 9)

Diversity of people and enormity of professions captured to define a web of relationships

An artist uses his/her medium to actively engage his/ her viewers in the task of relating to the art work. For Hamra, “Idols” is a ceaseless series of work with a fruitful purpose behind it- the purpose of engaging with people from the working classes in Cambridge, Boston and Istanbul. Interaction with different spatial and temporal boundaries enabled Hamra to understand and know what variety is all about. The ongoing global tensions of economic slowdown, high rates of unemployment were at the heart of this artwork series and were being extensively talked of by people. During this time, the artist photographed random people working at supermarkets, post offices, deli stores, restaurants, stations and other places. In the short time that she conversed and interacted with these people, she developed a relationship with them. This is what art is all about- developing relationship with the viewers and connecting with them. These interactions not only helped Hamra transform at a personal level, but also enabled her to turn each photograph into a sculpture, giving it a life-like shape and turning each of them into an Idol. The purpose behind photographing random people was to develop bonding with strangers and getting into a never ending web of relationship, even during hard times.

Hamra Abbas, Bourgeois (Idols), 2014, archival pigment print mounted on dibond, 471/5 x 311/2”

Unveiling mysteries behind the most sacred of imageries

Despite being born and brought up witnessing the culture of Islam, Hamra Abbas prefers to take an unprejudiced stand for her culture. By transforming and playing with iconic imageries associated with Islam’s religion and culture, she questions the notion of blind faith which people have. She also out rightly interrogates the idea of truth and through her art asks if only religion can quench a devotee’s quest for truth. She unveils the truth behind the very intangibility of all steady constants that govern the philosophies of any religious practice through her artwork series “Kaaba Picture as a Misprint”. She questions the very color of the cube kept in the Kaaba, the most sacred and central point of Islam, situated in the holy Mecca. By re-presenting the kaaba with a spectrum of colors, she exposes the actuality behind the original color of the cube of the Kabba. She explains the opaqueness behind the black color in a theoretical manner, informing her viewers of the printing processes which created the black out of a mixture of three colors- cyan, magenta and yellow. Through this, the artist makes a reference to the printing mistakes that happened during pre-digital age, but also metaphorically refers to the dubiousness of religious practices which claim to take the path of truth.

Hamra Abaas, Kaaba Picture as a Misprint 1, 2014, archival pigment print mounted on dibond, 539/10 x 433/10”