October Issue 2015
Art Review: Hamra Abbas
Canvas Gallery is exhibiting works by Hamra Abbas, an eclectic and
highly energised artist. Her oeuvre covers hugely divergent styles and media. This gives her artistic output a chameleon quality. She has been the recipient of many international awards including the jury prize at Sharjah Biennial 9, and the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize out of Dubai. She was also shortlisted for the Jameel Prize in 2009.
The title ‘Misprint’ refers to her series of chromogenic C-print abstractions. The viewer looks upon a flat surface comprising quadrilateral shapes. Only straight lines and right angles are permitted. The context for these shapes, however, comes from the real world. The iconic black cube of the Ka’aba is the source of Hamra’s personal epiphany that inspired this series. The notion of the cube is explored through two divergent mediums, print images and paper pop-ups. In both cases the viewer is invited to mediate between their perception of form and space and that of their cultural preconceptions.
The cube — which is essentially the meaning of the Arabic word ‘Ka’aba’ — is conceptually reconfigured in the ‘Misprint’ series in two significant ways. The black hue, which is an absence of colour, paradoxically becomes a derivative of other hues in these prints. The three primary hues of offset printing, namely cyan, magenta and yellow, are used by the artist as building blocks of “misprinted” quadrants which overlap and intersect. At their greatest overlap, they yield a near-black shade. The process is suggestive of diversity within the unity of religion. The viewer can perceive square and rectangular shapes in multiple ways. The so-called “misprint” becomes an opportunity to shift awareness from a singularity to a plurality. Secondly, the three dimensionality of the cubic form is deflated into two dimensional planes of shape and color.
This playful reconfiguration is described by Hamra as “celebratory representations of religiosity.”
In an adjoining room, 17 small acrylic boxes are studded along the walls in a horizontal line. Within these we find a completely different treatment of the cube motif. Paper pop-ups of the cube delicately come forward from the flat plane of the paper from which they extrude. The vacant space from where the cube has been lifted creates its own dynamic geometry of absented space. The volume of the cube, which was eliminated in the C-prints, is reintroduced in these artifacts. But there is a twist. The surface of the paper from which the pop-ups have been constructed is entirely perforated with an arabesque pattern. The material is like lace. This opens the internal space of the cube to the viewer in a playful contrast from the closed volume of the actual Ka’aba.
Last but not least, watching over the gallery like Chinese ancestors, are two C-print portraits of Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois. These portraits belong to Hamra’s ‘Artists’ series. She has sculpted miniature heads from thick splodges of a malleable substance. The sculptures are then photographed and hugely enlarged. The effect is amusingly expressive and the resemblance to the personalities is immediately apparent despite the exaggerated contours.
As an aside, several of the ‘Misprint’ frames did not make it through customs in time for the opening. In an undesirable parody of art, Karachi Customs played its own unpredictable role in deflating volume.
Hamra Abbas’ art goes beyond what Marcel Duchamps had termed as retinal art. It invites a dialogue between the eye and the mind and this places her work within the broad and excitingly uncertain parameters of Conceptual Art.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.