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Idols of Hamra Abbas.

Byline: Shahana Rajani

The art of Hamra Abbas, a renowned Pakistani artist settled in Massachusetts, is a rare sight in Karachi. She has exhibited in cities around the world such as New York, London, Madrid, Singapore, Istanbul. Her recent exhibition, which opened in June 2012 at Canvas Gallery, was hence much anticipated. It featured works from three different series, executed in three different media.

The fiberglass sculptures on display belong to her Ride series (2008). They show three winged-horses, each with the head of a woman, placed on rocking bases. Identical in size and form, they vary only in color. The artist informs that they are based on a mythical animal called Buraq - traditionally that carried the Holy Prophet (PBUH) from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the event of Mi'raj in the 7th century. Buraq has been visualized in Persian manuscripts - for example in Nizami Ganjavi's Khamsa (Five Poems), 1539-43, which includes a rare illustration of the ascension to heaven on the Buraq. The illustration depicts the flying horse with the head of a woman. Apart from Persian miniatures, the image of Buraq has an iconic value in the popular culture of Pakistan, often seen painted on trucks, in bright garish colors as a winged horse with the head of a woman.

Compared to such images, Abbas' horses have a life of their own. Made in pastel shades of pink, yellow and blue, they exude a mellow tranquility. The horse head reflects the artist's own facial features, and in following the long tradition of envisioning the Buraq as female, the artist (re)imagines this traditional depiction as a feminist icon. A symbol of power and liberation, with their wings spread wide, the horses overwhelm the gallery space. Yet on closer examination, one notices that the horses stand on a rocking base. This reference to life-size toys, reminds us of the creative transformations capable through childhood worlds of fantasy and magic, of a child's fantasy of riding winged horses while playing with a wooden rocking horse. This amalgamation of Islamic legend and childhood fantasy is a show of both defiance and agency on part of the artist.

Her second series on display, titled Idols (2012), is an ongoing work. It includes 22 large prints of heads. The artist informs that her work has consistently involved an element of interaction with its place of origin; hence this series was inspired by her interactions in Boston and Istanbul. She photographed people met in quotidian experiences "working at supermarkets, post offices, deli stores, restaurants, T stations, construction sites, street vendors, handy men and taxi drivers."

From these photographs, she made putty sculptures of the heads, which were (re)photographed and displayed as prints. They become a representation, three times removed from reality. While the faces are taken from various intersections within quotidian experience, the background is a solid grey, giving the viewer no indication of where and how the artist came across these people. Despite these limitations, the faces have an emotive quality that seems to aptly capture the uniqueness of each person.

The third work is a video installation titled Text Edit (2011). This video shows a computer screen where an email message is being drafted. While the person using the computer is not shown, we can hear the sound of each key being pressed as the words appear. The artist explains that the video highlights "the climate of fear and surveillance by making edits to the email as it is being written... The work attempts to capture the absurdity around this discourse of fear that carries the potential to interpret almost anything as an act of suspicion." Since 9/11, fear and paranoia has pervaded the psyches of Americans, and as the psychiatrist David Hawkins writes, this proliferation of fear is as limitless as the human imagination. While in extreme cases it has led to a kind of fanaticism and destructiveness, Abbas through her installation, explores the effects this paranoia has had on daily life of people, where self-censorship has become an involuntary reflex.

While the works are interesting individually, the critical reasons for choosing these three works to function as an exhibition remain unclear. Nonetheless, the exhibition serves the essential purpose of showcasing the works of an international artist and allowing the Karachi art public to see Abbas' work first-hand.
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Publication:Nukta Art
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Dec 31, 2012
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