The art of colours

September 26, 2021

For artists, colours are not concepts but pigments

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An actor of popular Punjabi stage drama gets regularly ridiculed due to his extra dark complexion, but remains unperturbed. He defiantly informs others that all colours can be dyed black, except black that remains unchanged, thus dominant – a common observation, shared by every dauber, dyer, and house decorator. However, many of us do not know that even black is not black in most cases. There was once a student from an African country at the National College of Arts (NCA), with skin so dark, it looked like deep blue, hence explaining the image of the blue god Krishna – a Dravidian divinity – in traditional Indian miniature. Because the human race is divided into white, yellow, red (Indians), brown and black – but not blue, green, or turquoise.

What the miniature painter understood was the same truth that dawned on several other artists, including Joseph Albers who realised that colour changes its quality, ie. strength, shade and hue, depending upon a few factors: size, background, light, other reflected colours, and our view (point). For artists, colours are not just concepts, but pigments, and they treat colours the way writers – borrowing a phrase from the Japanese writer, Jose Saramago: “spend their lives arranging words”.

Whether reflected, reduced, in shadow, brilliant, dull or dim, colours are always contentious. Like Louise Armstrong’s song ‘You Like Tomato and I Like Tomato/You Like Potato and I Like Potato’, each human being sees colour in a different accent. Your orange can be red for me, or yellow; but along with optical stimuli of things in certain situations, time, and light, our understanding of colour also encompasses religious, lingual, political, economic, and scientific connections. Colours not only have a great deal of visual variations, they also possess hidden histories in terms of their discovery, processing, transportation, value and utility. All the things that we hardly ever register or remember when we squeeze a paint tube, open a jar of colour, or choose a swatch from Photoshop.

Hamra Abbas does inquire, investigate, and explore multiple pasts, functions, meanings and symbols of colours. Her work, stemming from intense research, takes a different turn in its course. Colour in her art is physical, in many senses of the word. Its material composite holds as much significance as its shade. Colour is not a name on a chart, but a living (read light) substance that moves, breathes, pulsates, merges, and metamorphosizes. In her work, the passage of paint – in the form of stone slabs, or Perspex sheets – conveys our reality, imagination and perceptions, both personal and public.

Abbas has been exploring the nature of colour and light as colour, from her MA (Hons) Visual Arts at the NCA, particularly in the series of gouache on wasli, In This Lesson You Will Learn How Things Reflect in Different Times (2001) – a marble fountain rendered in changing hours of the day. Later, with Kaaba Picture as A Misprint (2014), this pursuit took a sublime direction, as she focused on the relation between colour and its religious association. Widely practiced in Christian Art and found in the art and architecture produced by Muslim societies.

The example of Hamra Abbas is important – an artist, who doesn’t rely on whims, chances or accidents. She has consulted treatises on colour (including Goethe’s Theory of Colours), historic miniatures, has documented stone inlay of Mughal buildings in Lahore; studied works of modern and contemporary masters such as Kazimir Malevich, Joseph Albers and Sol LeWitt. Hence, she created a body of work that has deep roots in the history of ideas and art – and is original, exciting and extraordinary. Her work (from her current solo exhibition, Color Wheel, September 21-30, 2021, Canvas Gallery Karachi) reaffirms how an innovative artist draws references from the past, and turns them into something new. Originality is not ‘discovery’, but ‘magnificence’ to such a level that one’s creative outputs offer a new and lasting perspective on our tried and tired reality.

Hamra Abbas does inquire, investigate, and explore multiple pasts, functions, meanings and symbols of colours. Her work, stemming from intense research, takes a different turn in its course. Colour in her art is physical.

The work of Abbas has two – rather three – distinct characters. To signify its meaning as a cultural and historic symbol; to overawe a viewer with its physical presence; and to merge and lose its identity to form another hue. David Scott Kastan and Stephan Farthing in their book On Color, debate the nature of colour, i.e. frequencies of electromagnetic energy, substance, sensation received though eyes, realisation in the mind or/and cultural constructs. Abbas, in a creative way, has dealt with all these interpretations of colour. In her sculptures the colour emerges as light, enters a viewer’s gaze, occupies their brain, and unfolds cultural contexts. But on a physical level, translucent sections of Plexiglas with LED lights seem to be intermingling and creating multiple shades – ultimately forming a black circle, square, 12-sided polygon, a 6-petal flower in the centre.

In this Color Wheel series 1 to 5, other hues are generated through overlapping of three elementary colours (cyan, magenta, yellow) – hues, which, in actuality, are not present. The work addresses the distance between what is real and what is purely optical, diminishing the difference.

As we distinguish innumerable and unnameable hues in our surroundings – “some scientists maintain that more than 17 million” – their sources add another layer to their shades of meaning. Abbas, in another body of works, opts for stones, which, along with their colour and shapes, signify historical and cultural threads. In two of her sculptures, triangles of different dimensions are joined to make a circle or another large triangle, comprising different types of stones, ie. marble, jasper, calcite, serpentine and lapis lazuli. If one reads into the history of colour, it offers (forgotten) facts about trade, cultural interactions, political alliances, power structures and exploitations. Colours do not just represent a certain tint, their names also remind a multiplicity of historic, social and economic references. For instance, the term Indigo “comes from a Greek word that means ‘from India’”. Prussian Blue, Raw and Burnt Siena bring to mind Prussia and Sienna. Orange was derived from the Sanskrit word for the fruit, naranga. Likewise, the origin of stones in Abbas’s work also delineates a global exchange.

Stones, if they can travel from one region to another, also have the capacity to transcend their earthy traces; fully employed by artists/artisans who illustrated the scenes of paradise. Especially one from the Lahore Fort’s Mirror Palace, in which a tree is divided into seven colours of rainbow. Abbas extends this idea further in her work The Garden of Paradise 3. The tree, Cyprus (which stands at the edge of Heaven) is split into seven kinds/colours of stones – close to another, earthly tree, growing in twisted directions, branches laden with blue (lapis lazuli) fruits. The imagery represents a conversation of two worlds. A symmetrical tree next to an irregular one. A meeting of heaven and earth.

One may wonder about other meeting grounds; considering the choice of Abbas’s references. Joseph Albers and So LeWitt at one point, and the heavenly sky and trees from Lahore’s historic architecture. Where, when and how do these two separate strands converse? Actually, they communicate in the DNA of every person living in this age, where the division of past and present, West and East, even religious and secular hardly matters. This is because one is negotiating with diversity – outside as well as internally– at every phase, occasion and moment.

In Abbas, the demarcation of East and West, old and new, personal and public disappears. What binds Josef Albers to a Petra dura stone from Lahore is ‘perfection’. Formal, in the case of the American painter who strived for ideal visual structures; and conceptual, with regards to historic wall sculptures which depict heaven, the perfect place.

If God is in the detail, probably divinity is in perfection. Perfection is also witnessed in the art of Hamra Abbas as she ‘un-weaves the rainbow’ again and again.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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