On Religion, Tradition, Politics and Multiculturalism: Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas – in conversation

Art Radar speaks with the artist on the occasion of her latest solo exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai.

Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas talks about her life as a “multicultural journey” enriching her oeuvre and aesthetic discovery. Art Radar spoke with the artist about her life, artistic practice and recent work.

Hamra Abbas, "Bodies", 18 September - 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: 'Barakah Gift 2 - Pen holder' (2016), 'Plastic Flowers 1' (2016) and 'One Rug, Any Color' (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, “Bodies”, 18 September – 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: ‘Barakah Gift 2 – Pen holder’ (2016), ‘Plastic Flowers 1’ (2016) and ‘One Rug, Any Color’ (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Launched on 18 September and running until 10 November 2016, “Bodies” marks the second solo exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai by Hamra Abbas (b. 1976, Kuwait). Featuring a range of works in a diversity of materials, the exhibition is influenced by the artist’s recent move back to her hometown Lahore, where she received her BFA and MA in Visual Arts from the National College of Arts in 1999 and 2002. Abbas did the Meisterschueler in 2004 in at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, and lived for many years between Boston and Lahore.

Abbas’s artistic practice has greatly benefited from her multicultural upbringing and life experiences. Her oeuvre draws from a myriad of sources and takes a diversity of forms, transforming her “encounters” and “experiences” – such as an image, an icon or a gesture – into something with a different scale, function or medium. She uses a variety of materials and media to explore notions as diverse as cultural history, sexuality, violence, ornamentation, devotion and faith. Recently, her primary investigation has dealt with the language of religion and acts of devotion, to understand the changes in society through transformation and individual experience.

Art Radar spoke with the artist to find out more about how her personal life experience has influenced and inspired her work, how her artistic practice has developed, and what she explores with her newest body of work.

Portrait of Hamra Abbas. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist. Photography by Nashmia Haroon.

Portrait of Hamra Abbas. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist. Photography by Nashmia Haroon.

Your life has been quite a multicultural journey: you are a Pakistani born in Kuwait, educated in Lahore and Germany, and now living between the United States and Pakistan. How have you reconciled the multicultural influences and perspectives) in your life and how have they inspired and influenced your artistic practice?

Yes, that is exactly how I would describe my life: a “multicultural journey.” Living in different cities over the last decade or so has clearly had a strong impact on my work. Lahore and Berlin being the place of my formative training in art, will always hold a special significance in my heart. It was a time of reflection and much thinking, and of discovery. Now, living and working between Lahore and Boston for a number of years has been extremely eventful, but also tiring, especially as a family. However, it lends to a larger spectrum of possibilities in terms of influences, engagements and production.

I have taken from each place where I have lived, and responded to its spatial and contextual dimensions. I truly owe the diversity of my artistic practice to this quasi-nomadic life, where nothing is definitive. But at the same time, for now I thoroughly appreciate being more settled in Lahore after an absence of about 15 years, and being calm and mindful of the everyday in this city that I most identify as home.

The same ‘multitude’ (of influences and perspectives) that you have in your life is present in the diversity of media that you use in your work. What does a medium mean to you? Why do you choose such different materials for your works?

I was initially trained in sculpture, but I have always found different mediums equally stimulating to work in. Also, my experience of constantly finding myself in different contexts and environments has had a significant impact in the way I work. I feel, the influx of different experiences requires the ability to work in several mediums, to be able to work across boundaries and disciplines in order to explore and express the conceptual fluidity that results from it.

It becomes part of the complexity of how different trajectories interconnect, and that leads to perceptual shifts or modes of seeing things. So aspects of malleability, fiction, and nomadism apply to the medium in which art is produced. In this sense, I feel liberated in working across different mediums to express the shifting registers of meaning on the time and space continuum.

Hamra Abbas, 'Plastic Flowers 1' (detail), 2016, Sheesham wood, oil paints, dimensions variable . Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, ‘Plastic Flowers 1’ (detail), 2016, Sheesham wood, oil paints, dimensions variable . Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

There is a strong presence of traditional culture and an element of history in your oeuvre. What is it that attracts you to tradition and to what end do you use and transform it in your work?

In general, tradition is viewed as something static, monolithic and at times even as a regressive aspect of societies. Contrasted with modernity, as its opposite, tradition is often enough seen in terms of linearity that is helplessly in conflict with the modern world. In this fashion the narrative of modernity, with its emphasis on progress, science, and rationalism is made to clash with the conservative force of traditionalism. Now, at the end of the day, all of these constructions depend on how we understand history itself, and the type of tropes, metaphors and motifs we employ or select in the construction of our narratives.

Of course, it also means taking into account the role of authorising discourse in the production of historical narratives, which problematises the distinction between fact and fiction. This means we can always rethink, reimagine, and recreate our histories. So the point is that the present plays a critical role in the construction of our past, and therefore I am interested in thinking about history as an ongoing, living enterprise that can reveal new layers of complexity.

Hamra Abbas, 'Barakah Gifts 2 - Pen holder', 2016, fibreglass, auto paints, 134.6 x 240 x 244 cm. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, ‘Barakah Gifts 2 – Pen holder’, 2016, fibreglass, auto paints, 134.6 x 240 x 244 cm. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

In your 2014 exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi you presented a series of two-dimensional works called “Kaaba Pictures” that referenced souvenirs bought by pilgrims during the Hajj pilgrimage in Pakistan. In your 2016 exhibition at Lawrie Shabibi, “Barakah Gifts” series is also inspired by these commercial souvenirs for pilgrims, but there is a change in medium and the works become three-dimensional. Could you tell us more about the significance of such objects in traditional culture, why you chose to reference them in your work, and how you made the transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional representation of a similar concept?

The objects I have chosen for my “Barakah Gifts” series may refer or represent “tradition” but is in fact contemporary merchandise. I am interested in their hybridity, so to speak. These objects, at first glance, seem innocent and benign, but I feel there is more to them. These objects are just like any other commercial items, mass produced in factories for public consumption by appealing to religious iconography and sentiments. The combination of commercial interests and spirituality is part of the form, design, colour, and also location, of these objects.

I am interested in the materiality of these objects and the manner in which they possess agency in impressing their visual credentials upon the buyer. Moreover, I think, in essence the hybridity of such objects results from their claim as representations of religious material. Deriving bodily identity from that source, to similarly, appear pious. Nevertheless, what I really want to unveil in this process of representation is how the objects break away from the “original” in their act of mimesis and present or contain another form of seeing.

“Kaaba Pictures” is based on visual representations of the Kaaba in various forms, such as on textiles, posters, ornamentation, etc, that I documented at public and private spaces in Lahore and Karachi. “Barakah Gifts” is a series based on objects collected from Mecca and Medina, that are bought and sold as blessed mementos. Hence the transition from 2D to 3D is a result of the source material itself.

Hamra Abbas, "Bodies", 18 September - 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: 'Sweet and Savory' (2016) and 'Bodies' (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, “Bodies”, 18 September – 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: ‘Sweet and Savory’ (2016) and ‘Bodies’ (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Religion and spirituality seem to have a large role in your work. Can you explain why and how you use religious and spiritual references? Are you commenting on contemporary society and what messages are you trying to communicate?

I do not see religion only as a body of doctrine. It is perhaps to a larger extent the practice of religion that reverberates with me. So religion is not a self-contained category, it has social, economic, and political dimensions. In my view then religious material culture, symbolism, and gestures are all open to multiple interpretations.

I am especially drawn to seeing religion in terms of its everyday practice, and how the “ordinary” may also possess the power to subvert its ideological force or imperatives to disclose contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes that make us perhaps “human”. Such considerations may help us see matters of “error” and “truth” not as binaries that must clash, but as ambiguous, interrelated zones, that can and do co-exist in invisible ways.

Hamra Abbas, 'Bodies', 2016, Sheesham wood, oil paints, approximate dimensions 35.6 x 15.2 cm (each). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, ‘Bodies’, 2016, Sheesham wood, oil paints, approximate dimensions 35.6 x 15.2 cm (each). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Bodies is another series of woodcarvings, this time of footwear. Can you explain why you chose to represent footwear in sculptural form and what the meaning of these works is?

Collection of footwear seen outside places of worship is a common sight at temples, mosques and shrines alike. In the case here, these shoes were left outside a mosque, which includes a famous shrine in Lahore. The footwear in this context is material boundary drawn between the sacred and the profane, between the pure and the impure. Such boundaries are intrinsically about the body, and so the footwear, in the context of the location, embodies that distinction. It is as if the “impure bodies” have been left outside the holy site.

Hamra Abbas, 'Sweet and Savory', 2016, Duratrans lightbox, 44.5 x 62 cm (17.5 x 24.4 in). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, ‘Sweet and Savory’, 2016, Duratrans lightbox, 44.5 x 62 cm (17.5 x 24.4 in). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

In Sweet and Savoury you photographed a small pile of rice. The image is a potent symbol of what has been and is going on in Pakistan today in the religious sphere. Could you tell us more about this work and its significance?

Pakistan has seen a sharp increase in violence carried out in the name of religion. As a consequence, security has become an overriding concern, and religious places, it seems, require greater surveillance than other public places. I spotted the two piles of rice near a famous shrine/mosque in Lahore. Food is regularly distributed there to all because doing so is believed to be a source of religious merit.

However, this generosity and compassion characterised in distribution of free food in the religious vicinity itself is contained, as it were, by the security apparatus surrounding the mosque. The piles of rice, sweet and savory, on the security barrier itself were for the birds, marking the state of prevailing anxiety, visibly in the bitter/sweet aspect of things at the intersection of security and compassion. In this it appears as if “nature” too becomes subject to the same travails.

Hamra Abbas, 'One Rug, Any Color', 2016, travel prayer rug. 179 x 330 x 2 cm. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, ‘One Rug, Any Color’, 2016, travel prayer rug. 179 x 330 x 2 cm. Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

One Rug, Any Colour leads back to your earlier work referencing the Kaaba and your fascination with colour. Can you tell us more about your use of colour in your work and what this particular piece is about?

I am using colour here as a metaphor for the act of seeing, and consequently for experience. In the case of “Kaaba Picture as a Misprint”, the work was about disclosing the presence of diversity, variety and difference, within the notion of unity. Furthermore, difference in religion can and is often treated as a form of error, but interestingly, Kaaba is depicted in black, or as such, strikes the imagination as being black. Many representations of the Kaaba are always in black.

Interestingly, black is composition of all colours, and a slight shift in our sense of sight, can create an “error” or “misprint”, to reveal the presence of colours that constitute black. Similarly, “One Rug, Any Color” follows up the same idea, and to be honest, it was almost by chance that I found these rugs on Amazon, of all the places. All have the form of Kaaba, as a cube, drawn on it, and each rug is of a different colour.

Hamra Abbas, "Bodies", 18 September - 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: 'One Rug, Any Color' (2016) and 'Plastic Flowers 2' (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Hamra Abbas, “Bodies”, 18 September – 10 November 2016, Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai. Installation view. From left to right: ‘One Rug, Any Color’ (2016) and ‘Plastic Flowers 2’ (2016). Image courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist.

Do you think art is inextricable from socio-political events and personal life? Does art have to deal and speak of such elements according to you and why? And do you think it is important to have diverse influences and perspectives in one’s work? What is the advantage of leading such a multicultural life and how does it benefit your work as an artist?

I would certainly not suggest outright that art must deal with politics or has to be rooted in autobiography at all times. As such, it would be to state the obvious that art and politics is always connected, even when the artist claims an apolitical stance. For my part, I have dealt with the political in my work, and feel that it enriches the way I produce art. And for the diverse influences in my life, it allows for complex comparisons between different cultures and ways of being, which is exhilarating.

Apart from that, on some level, artists are always in conversation with notions of art history itself. I too am interested in the role of discourses in production of art, and especially the way instructions or lessons are passed on, and over the years have made various mock lessons, Artists series and life-drawings, as a subject of my work as well.

C. A. Xuân Mai Ardia

1337

Related Topics: Pakistani artists, interviews, art and politics, spiritual, art about society, gallery shows, events in Dubai

Related Posts:

Subscribe to Art Radar to learn more about top artists from the Indian subcontinent

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Comments are closed.