Godly geometry

February 16, 2020

Hamra Abbas combines the language of contemporary art with the fundamental of religious iconography

In his recent essay The Changing Colours of Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk laments on the disappearance of yellow light from shops and houses in Istanbul. Instead, white fluorescent light has taken over his native city. Reading him, one wonders on the formation, effect and origin of light. For some, every tone is an offshoot of white; for Hamra Abbas – as per the title of her solo show at the COMO Museum of Art, Lahore – Every Colour is a Shade of Black.

Why black? There are many answers to the question, all of which could be gathered from her exhibition. A keen observer, Abbas investigates the structure of light, physiology of colour, its symbolic meaning and its different representations in traditional and contemporary aesthetics.

Colours have connotations — formal, religious, political, racial — and are thus variously connected with faiths, ideologies, and groups. Green is normally associated with Islam, saffron with Hinduism, red with Communism etc.

Some artists use shapes, colours and other ingredients of pictorial language as — borrowing a phrase of Stanley Cavell’s — “objects of the sort that can only be known in sensing”; but for others link to a system of thought makes the works of art known, fully. You may enjoy a composition of colours but on digging deep you turn the initial ‘beauty’ into ‘a joy forever’. Beauty, in the words of Swiss artist Rodolphe Topffer, “in its absolute essence, is God”.

At first Abbas’s work engulfs you optically, on further encounter you begin to read it.

Shapes of colours that are placed on top of each other, in separate formats, embody a profound content. Beginning with Kaaba Picture as a Misprint, Abbas has arranged rectangles of three primary (printing) hues, cyan, magenta, yellow, in such an order that these forms remind one of the holiest structure for the Muslims. The shades emerge as black where superimposed; further connoting the colour of Ka’aba.

Like these, her other works, Misprint Stars, could be chromatic exercises — as stars, hexagons and triangles are constructed with multiple variations of, again, three basic colours. But these digital prints also invoke the language of minimalism “recalling Lewitt’s Wall Drawing # 343 (1980)”. Her decision to combine and thus realise that every colour is a shade of black can be traced to Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat ul wujud, in which the “external world of sensible objects is but a fleeting shadow of the Real (al-Haq), God”.

From Kaaba Picture… prints to her stone inlay works, one can locate perfection, geometry and religion; all interwoven. In a sense, geometry is a human endeavour about the marriage of this and that world. Religion is also a bridge that takes us from here to there. So is art which, if perfectly made, lifts immediate reality to a higher plane.

Extending her inquiry into belief, Abbas focuses on visual representation of religious concepts. She draws references from the historic sites of Lahore, mainly the Mughal monuments, and appropriates their imagery in a language that is contemporary, subtle and sublime.

In Gardens of Paradise, Abbas attempts to recreate an ideal world from sources available to every visitor of Shalimar Garden, Wazir Khan Mosque and Lahore Fort. Mughals and other Muslim dynasties have been creating gardens in reality and in images (imagination!), a means to reconstructing and reconnecting with the Garden of Eden, where one finds fountains, fruits, trees representing the popular view of paradise.

Abbas has been documenting garden imagery in stone and frescos from the historic architecture during her visits to Lahore from the US. She produced Waterfall, 2017, consisting stylised streams of water, wine, honey and milk, only to realise that these are three primary colours: blue, red, yellow along with white! Arrangements of fruits and knife, and cherry tree are seen in her other stone pieces, in which — like the field and followers of faith — material comes from distant regions: Italy, Turkey, Spain, Vietnam, China, Afghanistan, India, all embedded into indigenous Pakistani marble. Often we have a fixed, futile understanding of an image; as cherry tree is associated with Orient, but for Abbas “after living for almost a decade in Boston” it echoes the American East Coast.

Meticulously manufactured, these works also suggest how the Garden of Paradise was represented in the gardens of this land, namely the Garden of Shalimar in Kashmir from which the gardens of Lahore and other cities drew inspiration. For Abbas, the imagery on the walls at the Lahore Fort or Wazir Khan Mosque is an elaboration or extension of the initial layout of the Heaven. Thus, what we see in Lahore is a copy of a copy; but in Abbas’s work it is a copy of the copy of the copy. So further removed from the origin, these become original, since viewing these you don’t need to recall history; the works due to their minimal vocabulary signify the essence of life.

Contrary to general views, biases and prejudices, religion ensures you the foundation of existence. With Islam’s peculiar position on pictorial representation, Muslim art has preferred simplified, stylised and geometric forms, in which reality is not portrayed but indicated. Abbas combines the language of contemporary art, especially of minimalism and structuralism with the fundamental of religious iconography, thus joining two distinct and distant pictorial practices.

A modern person in a Muslim world, Abbas is not confined to one convention or style, yet her recent work is heavily imbedded in religion (or tradition). In 2008 she made a series of 99 portraits of children enrolled in Islamic seminaries (God Grows on Trees), and now at COMO one could see portraits of transgender persons, Every Color, 2019. Painted in Gongbi technique on silk, a technique Abbas learnt during her research residency at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore in 2015, these are characters crowding the roadsides for alms. But here it is not just about gender; Abbas has depicted them as if wearing a dupatta. Looking at the contours of these faces, one senses the absence/presence of head scarf; and how the dogma of orthodoxy contrasts with their chosen profession.

In her work, medieval India and the minimalism of modern age cohabit; where Ka’aba, the most revered structure of Islam can be connected to an abstract sensibility; and where the spiritual mixes with the physical by making transgender faces outlined through head scarves — just like this society where contradictions comfortably coexist.

The exhibition that began on January 25 will continue till end May 2020 and is a collateral event of Lahore Biennale 02

Hamra Abbas' solo show at COMO Museum of Art, Lahore – Every Colour is a Shade of Black