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Hamra Abbas represented by Lawrie Shabibi

Hamra Abbas’s work is playful and unpredictable, it has a definite presence, but is so versatile that it is hard to pin down exactly what it is about an Abbas work that tells you it is hers. Fat Nancy takes a look at why she likes it so much.

Firstly and overarching, Abbas’s work is pure. In its use of colour, its concepts and humour, she sticks to absolute and direct messaging. The colours she uses are sharp, clear and translucent, even when used in prints. They remind FN of David Batchelor’s works, often managing to bring a similar brightness to the fore without the need for artificial light, using instead natural light, colour on paper, on glass, with food colouring in plasticine, as a tool to manipulate and reflect the intensity she desires.

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Abbas’s life, and consequently her work, could be said to be somewhat fractured – coming from Pakistan and a deeply Islamic community and now living and working in the USA. Perhaps it is this contradiction that makes it addictively erratic, fickle and playfully capricious. She straddles the seemingly liberated West, drawing on misconceptions of Islam or the parallels between Islam and the mis-led idolatry implicit in the West’s own culture. She ties it back in with the often mis-directed or perceived conservatism of her home country – weaving the tapestry of her overarching practice through this cross stitching of cultural, social, political and religious and in the process, diffusing prevailing tensions between East and West by ‘bringing us in contact with the unfamiliar through visual art’ (press release, Garner Museum).

With her plasticine portraits of celebrities, Icons, or famous artists, meticulously modelled by hand in miniature, photographed and blown up to poster size Abbas plays games with the viewer. Standing in front of a series of these portraits, you’re left guessing who each might be, drawing on your own life experience and knowledge, recognition of the celebrities or artists you might have idolised or despised at some point. You’re left with a dissatisfaction or unease if there is one model you don’t quite recognise – but why should you know these people? In the case of the artists, are these references she herself relates to – Bourgeois, Abramovic, Close, Beuys? Or is she reminding us that whatever our perceived status we are all miniature models, infinite versions of one thing, occasionally propelled to a ‘godly’ status by our relations to society around us.

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FN draws ties between this iconography and her detached interpretations of Makkah and the Kaaba in her Misprints and Kaaba Pictures – the Kaaba reduced to a misprint, where colours randomly overlay there is black and otherwise, there are individual clear colours. Are these accidents or intentional? Or the drawings of Makkah – tourist paraphernalia found in the little stalls around the central mosque of Makkah – again, these are miniatures blown up to poster size, taken out of their context they expose the illusions presented through the disproportionate city, the fake greens of hills that are in fact arid and dry …


She injects life into age old mythological creatures from the Qu’ran, such as her buraqqa rocking sculpture – Ride – tapping into the magical strands of the religion that capture even the most cynical of imaginations.


There is a boldness and confidence in her practice, which straddles a wide range of media, from paper collage and painting to ephemeral soft plasticine sculpture and video to highlight or shed light on minute details of the world around her, without passing strong judgement.

For her installation on the front of the Gardner Museum, she shows the spectacular silk and gold curtain (kiswa) that covers the door of the Kaaba in Makkah – inspired by a small plaster cast of this object displayed in her mother’s house in Lahore, Pakistan.

“Last summer,” Abbas says, “I found this cheap plaster imitation of the Kaaba door in my mother’s house in Lahore. It was hanging askew with a sizable layer of dust, which is not surprising for my mom, where chaos takes another meaning all together. However, it made me take notice of similar happenings in other places, while visiting friends and family and during my interaction with people in public spaces, so eventually I started documenting them. For me these small imperfections reveal the human element that co-exists with the seemingly monolithic ideals of truth and perfection.”

Gardner Museum, Boston

However, coming from a country where conflict has been a constant, there are ties that she makes between the wider political contexts and cultural intimacies that are intrinsic to a more subjective knowing and understanding. For example,  Lessons on Love (2004), a set of life-size works depicting the sexual embrace of a male and female, which she created while in Berlin. ‘The sculptures, made of unfired clay, are based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra (which loosely translates as “Lessons of Love”), and in particular, on an image that shows a man and a woman seated in a howdah—a canopied carriage mounted on horseback—in coitus while in the middle of a hunting scene. The Kama Sutra, an ancient Hindu text believed to have been compiled in the second century CE, proclaims hunting to be one of the important social arts, and that without mastering this activity one cannot achieve aesthetic and sexual pleasure. The one-ton clay sculptures, with their muted expressions, seem captured in stone rather than in the throes of love. By transforming the ancient illustrations into life-size sculptures, Abbas makes a wry comment on the paradoxical relationship between sex and violence.’ (Art Asia Pacific).

Her extractions from mythology innate to her heritage, the boldness of colour, lyrical sculptural presentations exploring culture’s openness to misinterpretation reminds FN of Bharti Kher’s work.

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She also explores the theme of love and its perplexing relationship to war in Love Yourself (2009) – an installation of translucent red, yellow, green and blue silicone sculptures, smooth, translucent and obvious emulations of dildos, vibrators and other sex toys. Derived from a visit to the Beate Uhse Erotic Museum, which was around the corner from where she used to study in Berlin. It was there that she learned of the German sex toy company Fun Factory and its slogan, “Love Yourself”. It made her smile, she says, “because I thought, ‘Love Yourself’ was highly charged, both sexually and politically.” At first glance, the assortment of colourful dildos and neon signs seem to personify the uplifting tone of the Fun Factory slogan. But upon closer observation, it’s evident that the sex toys are in fact toy-like fighter jets, missiles, bombs and bullets, challenging viewers to reconsider symbols of violence as things that have been transformed into objects of pleasure and fetishism.’ (source, Art Asia Pacific).


Hamra Abbas was born in Kuwait in 1976 and currently lives and works between Lahore and Boston.

Abbas received her BFA and MA in Visual Arts from the National College of Arts, Lahore in 1999 and 2002 respectively before going on to the Universitaet der Kuenste in Berlin in 2004 where she received the Meisterschueler.

Abbas has exhibited in numerous solo exhibitions most recently at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, India (2012); PILOT, Istanbul, Turkey (2012); Canvas, Karachi, Pakistan (2012) and Green Cardamom, London, UK (2011). She has taken part in group exhibitions at notable institutions and foundations including Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, USA; Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK; Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, India; Asia Society Museum, New York, USA; ARTIUM de Álava Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK; REDCAT, Los Angeles, USA and most recently the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, US. She has also participated in the deCordova Biennial, Lincoln, USA (2013); Asian Art Biennial, Taichung, Taiwan (2011); the International Artists Workshop of Thessaloniki Biennial, Thessaloniki, Greece (2009); International Incheon Women Artists Biennale, Incheon, South Korea (2009); Sharjah Biennial 9, Sharjah, UAE (2009); Guangzou Triennial, Guangzou, China (2008); Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, Turkey (2007); the Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, Australia (2006) and the Cetinje Biennial, Cetinje, Montenegro (2004).

She is the recipient of the Jury prize at Sharjah Biennial 9, the Abraaj Capital Art Prize in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize in 2009.

Her works are part of notable international public collections including the Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels, Belgium; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas, USA; Kadist Collection, Paris, France; British Museum, London, UK; Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, India; Kiran Nader Museum of Art, New Delhi, India; Art In Embassies Collection, USA; Koç Foundation, Istanbul, Turkey and Borusan Contemporary Art Collection, Istanbul, Turkey.

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