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What is COLOR?


What is COLOR?
Hamra Abbas, courtesy of Jon Strymish

There is an element of inseparability between the lived experience and creative practice of Pakistani contemporary artist Hamra Abbas. Born in 1976 in Kuwait, Hamra has since lived and worked in a multitude of cities, such as Lahore, Berlin, Islamabad, New York, and Boston. These recurring experiences of cultural dislocation, which intensified into an almost nomadic existence after handing in her thesis at the National College of Art (Lahore) in 2002, have shaped the trajectory of her work through the use of multivalent references, objects and images. At the same time, this has equally to do with her ability—and desire for experimentation—to work in different mediums in conjunction with her formal training in sculpture. Yet, despite the diversity in her work certain threads of thought recur in her practice. For one, Hamra Abbas has been investigating the notion of religious “truth,” as well as its ideological manifestations through symbols, iconography and material culture, for a number of years. As such, the more recent investigations into colour is instigated by the phenomenological treatment of black as a sacred colour, which she began ruminating on in 2013, to reveal the presence of other pigments which constitute its essential nature, that is, representation as well as perception as a holy colour. This mode of inquiry into the perceptual meaning and function of colour return in a new body of work, presented in her latest solo exhibition, COLOR, at Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

In her inquiry into the materiality of colour, as a perceptual medium, several challenges were raised. Foremost amongst theses was the question of how a pigment can act as an object in itself? Furthermore, what would allow, in terms of its effect, to harness light into a sculptural form?  Plexiglass as a result was used to allow for the diffusion of both light and colour. Earlier, Women In Black (2011), a stained glass triptych, which won Hamra the Abraaj Group Art Prize, delved into the conceptual possibilities offered through these experimentations with light and colour. Informed by the originally didactic function of stained glass as a means to transmit (Biblical) information to largely illiterate masses, Women In Black merged this Western associated aesthetic with that of Mughal miniature painting, that is, transforming painting into an object whose image is dictated by the natural changes in light occurring throughout a single day. Similarly, in COLOR, works such as Shapes or Green Flag emanate colour fields through the lens of light, by overlapping layers of plexiglass on a lightbox. Plexiglass used in this case is custom-fabricated to the projects’ specific color requirement, in order to transform the CMYK printing model into a three-dimensional object, that she originally employed for Kaaba Picture as a Misprint in 2014.


'Green Flag' (2017) by Hamra Abbas courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

'Kaaba Picture as Misprint' (2014) by Hamra Abbas, courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, Dubai

Hamra’s interest with the colour black, as a mode of perception, is well documented, tracing back to Kaaba Pictures (2013). It is the layers of meaning invested within this one shade that has intrigued the artist, who has commented “the colour black is most readily identified with the Kaaba but this mode of seeing contains the presence of other pigments without which the black would not exist, as if it were.”  One possible interpretation of this thought is how the physicality of the colour, black in this case, absorbs or inevitably contains a myriad of colours. Alternatively, a spiritual interpretation might suggest a world that is but a mirage. But in terms of her more discursive engagement with the language of modern art, Hamra grounds her investigations in art history through a reference to Malevich’s iconic painting The Black Square, which is often described as the zero point of painting. Much as The Black Square is in fact a painting layered over other more complex, colourful compositions, The Black Square: After Malevich is composed of an overlap of three layers of coloured plexiglass squares, i.e. yellow, magenta and blue, that result in a single shade of black. Poetically, it brings together several strands of conceptual thought by drawing reference to an iconic work of modern art in conjunction with a critical engagement through the adroit use of colour theory to create a confident, minimal aesthetic. Simultaneously, this sets the stage for future explorations into works of colour by seminal artists from both Western and Eastern canons.

'Kaaba Pictures' (2013) by Hamra Abbas, courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, Dubai

'The Black Square: After Malevich' (2017) by Hamra Abbas, courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Colour is not the only recurring theme in COLOR. A sustained engagement with traditional practice, that might be attributed to Hamra’s training in miniature painting, surfaces with What Colour Is The Sacred 1, What Colour Is The Sacred 2 and Waterfall: The Gardens of Paradise. Hamra has long been researching and documenting the Mughal inlay techniques—of which the monumental Taj Mahal is a prime example. Comparable to fifteenth century Italian stoneworks, marble inlay is found throughout South Asia in religious buildings, forts and historical sites. Keeping to the original spirit of this architectural detail, the works are built up on a specific type of Pakistani marble known as Ziarat that is quarried in Baluchistan, before being inlaid with a rainbow of marble from across the globe. By producing contemporary visuals in a manner grounded in South Asian traditional practice, Hamra actually brings history into dialogue with contemporary consciousness; and through her choice of materials she speaks about the increasingly transnational nature of culture and art in contemporary times. 

'What Colour is the Sacred 2' (2017) by Hamra Abbas courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

'Waterfall: The Gardens of Paradise' (2017) by Hamra Abbas, courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Clearly, COLOR extends on the questions raised in her past practice towards new directions. Effectively, audiences are left with the impression that the artist is reflecting on, and engaging with, the past in terms of its salience for the present. Beginning with Wall Hanging, which was exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston in 2013, Hamra has been researching into various theories and interpretations of colour. In terms of both symbolic significance and iconography, colour is implicit in religious, political, socio-cultural dimensions of human experience. COLOR seems to be her initial foray into a larger research project that might inform the next part of her career. 

'Shapes (Square)' (2017) by Hamra Abbas courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

'Shapes (Triangle)' (2017) by Hamra Abbas courtesy of Canvas Gallery, Karachi

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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