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The pristine language of art

The latest works of Hamra Abbas at Canvas Gallery Karachi suggest that an encounter can reclaim the state of eternal heavenly bliss

The pristine language of art

As artist Paul Klee describes line as a dot that went for a walk, similarly two colours can also go on a date, both within a work of art and beyond, in nature or in man-made environment. In our daily lives, we hardly see a single colour; hues of different types merge, mingle, move and meet on varying fields, scales and surfaces. Even if a work of art is entirely made up of a single colour, it is placed against other tones, so the background affects/alters the intended shade.

Colours are also considered carriers of other, meta-art, ideas. They may represent a state (according to flag or the uniform of its national sports team) or a religion.

Regardless of a colour’s many connotations, artists in different mediums and methods have to deal with them on a practical level. In her new work, along with formal features of colour, Hamra Abbas has addressed other concerns relating to faith and nationality; all conveyed using a precise and pristine language of art.

The artist’s apparent and outer position is purely formal, yet in a subtle sense, her work reminds us of our existence which is dependent on our understanding of faith.

It’s been some years since Abbas has been examining the link between religion and life, or faith and image-making. Her series of ‘Kaaba Picture as A Misprint’  (2014), was a significant step in that direction. But in her latest exhibition COLOR held at Canvas Gallery Karachi from Oct 31 to Nov 9, she extends her quest in several domains. “COLOR is a selection of new works that explore the motifs of interpretation and intervention through the phenomenology of color — color as race, color as gender, color as religion.” In her works Abbas alludes to numerous constructs which cause difference, hence division, destruction and even death in this world.

Instead of indicating directly towards a religious question or a national issue, the artist approaches her content in a manner which can be interpreted in multiple ways. Her apparent and outer position is purely formal, yet in a subtle sense, her work reminds us of our existence which is dependent on our understanding of faith. And that too not in its present state but through history, because belief in its true spirit is beyond the examination of time.

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Shapes (square) (L), The Black Square: After Malevich

In her solo exhibition, Abbas displays a black square made with layered sheets of Plexiglass of different colours; selected and joined in such a scheme that these emerged as pure black. The work at one point refers to ‘Black Square’ 1915 by Kazimir Malevich (Abbas’s work is of the same scale as the Russian Constructionist’s painting), but more than just connecting to the history of modern art, it also echoes the black square building revered by every Muslim. In a sense, ‘high art’ has acquired a similar sense of sacredness that is associated with faith. It would be as sacrilegious to deface Malevich’s painting as destroying a mosque or church.

Emanating from this body of work, Hamra Abbas explores the idea of colour; for example, black is a single hue but can be created through multiplication of other tints. So, in two works, triangles and half circles of different shades are placed on top of each other (and with the addition of LED lights) to convey that the overlapping generates pure black. It’s a feat that suggests the way the world is seen — where reality is always forged out of differing components with the final outcome merely an illusion.

In another piece, the dominant green of the Pakistani flag, the symbol of national identity, can be created by combining two colours, blue and yellow; in her work it is about to reach that state. The work becomes a comment upon the truth of our nationalistic and political constructs. One earnestly and passionately believes in the national symbol of green flag without knowing the underneath structure — of two hues.

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What color is the sacred – 2

Likewise, in another work from the same series, two prayer mats are overlapped (not fully) to create ‘The Red Rug’. Whether it is a rug, flag, or elementary shapes, the work conveys how the surface can be superficial in contrast to actual reality. Colour can also be part of that outer entity. Nations and ethnic communities are recognised, segregated and marginalised on the basis of their skin tones. Like gender, the issue of colour has a long history of injustice and discrimination. As Salman Rushdie remarks, the problem of colour is primarily a problem of Western society that subjugated other nations of differing complexions, treating their populations as subhuman and barring them from basic civil rights.

People who discriminate on the basis of individual’s skin colour do not realise that the skeleton of all humans is almost of an identical colour. Abbas responds to that fact and creates two works ‘What Color is Sacred’ with different kinds of marbles. The skulls in both are composed (in fact inlaid) of stones from separate regions: Italy, Spain, Turkey, India, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Cut into four sections, these pieces are constructed with separate shades and types of stones, each segment surrounded with black outline.

Like the colour of human beings, the shade and origin of a stone and its availability at certain point in history and location are important episodes in history but of a different mode. Human beings have nurtured symbols and forms to describe their life and, more importantly, afterlife — like the representation of Eden in art and architecture. Hamra Abbas, during her research on these themes, came across the inlay of stones in Lahore’s Mughal monuments. Inspired by these, she created a work of zigzag pattern of lines, ‘The Garden of Paradise’, which depicts the flow of water through a variation of tones. Interestingly, the two types of works executed in stone inlay are linked, because water is transparent but is conventionally represented in varying tones/stones. Likewise, a skull is of singular colour (sans teeth) yet it is projected with diverse complexion.

‘The Garden of Paradise’ reminds of a believer’s eternal life and continuous quest, a place he aims to return. At the same time, it indicates how art serves to reclaim that initial state of bliss. The works of Hamra Abbas suggest that the encounter with art is a figment of that state of bliss — heavenly and unforgettable.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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