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Hamra Abbas’ life experiences in Lahore, Berlin and Boston influence her art. Photo: Vipul Sangoi.
Hamra Abbas’ life experiences in Lahore, Berlin and Boston influence her art. Photo: Vipul Sangoi.

A life in miniature

Hamra Abbas' first solo in India mocks the routine fetishizing of 'traditional Islamic culture'

In a white cube gallery, on little black stands, we see exquisite paper cut-outs. Like snowy bits of lace—or minute friezes—they persuade us to step up to them. Then, we notice their geometric patterns confabulate tiny houses. They make us feel protective, as fragility does. For, belying its threatening title, It Was a Little Demon (2008) discusses domesticity with delicacy. A four-letter word is etched repeatedly on to criss-crossing ribbons of paper: “love".

This black and white offering is one of the artworks we encounter at Hamra Abbas’ first show at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai. Idols addresses “the themes of home, displacement and ‘the everyday’ that intermingle and recur across her practice", explains co-curator Priya Jhaveri (her sister, Amrita, being the other organizer). As if in league with the show’s premise, the authorities have ensured that the Pakistani artist will be “displaced" from her opening. “I applied for a visa two months ago and it’s still ‘under consideration’," she says ruefully over Skype from Boston, US, where she resides (albeit intermittently).

Home is a fluid concept for Abbas. Born in Kuwait, she grew up in Lahore, studied in Berlin, and later moved to Boston. This itinerancy plays its part in her art, influencing subject matter and production. Her Mumbai debut includes five bodies of work—God Grows on Trees (2008), Idols (2012), Paper Plates (2008), Battle Scenes (2006) and Demon. Most were completed far from “the place I’m most likely to call home" (that is, Lahore). Paper Plates and Demon were made in Berlin, where Abbas studied at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Idols—photographs of squashed-looking plasticine busts of multiracial people—was first conceived while she was pregnant in New York. Now, the project travels along with the artist: Based on moulds of ordinary, working-class people who agreed to participate, it currently includes 22 images from Istanbul, Karachi and Lahore. “They’re progressing along with my journeys," she says. The current solo will involve five of them.

A work from the Idols series
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A work from the Idols series

Maybe these miniatures of children from madrasas in Pakistan—girls in hijabs or boys in Muslim caps—comment on the sacred nestled within “the everyday". The number 99 has a religious significance in Islam: It represents the 99 names of Allah.

With these 99 offerings, perhaps Abbas is relating the repetitive dimension of artistic creation to rhythmic prayer? “Once I started, I suddenly couldn’t stop—so then it occurred to me that 99 is not just a number, it is an idea, it represents infinity," says Abbas. Maybe she’s making fun of the exhausting repetition involved in “old-fashioned" miniature painting, instead.

The series also includes a Diasec digital print of a tree-lined street on the way to the NCA. “In Lahore you see lots of metal plaques nailed on to trees with the letter of an attribute of God. The photo gave birth to the title, which sums up the process of the work—it was such a monster piece to make, show and transport," says Abbas.

The 99 portraits at Jhaveri Contemporary bemoan the endless stereotyping of the “Muslim country" in the popular press. Abbas is mocking the fetishizing of “traditional Islamic culture"; be it in the form of miniatures or madrasas, within Pakistan’s borders or outside them.

So, if her alma mater (the NCA) is famed for churning out students who excel at painting by rote, Abbas’ variation on the traditional miniatures is clever and complex. Like Rashid Rana—Pakistan’s very own Subodh Gupta—Abbas’ conversation is helped along by digital photography. Unlike Rana, Abbas’ labour-intensive artworks take time (and context) to fathom.

Idols’ photographic portraits bear traces of Abbas’ training in painting and sculpture. While the project started with plaster casts of people’s heads, these were then transformed into miniature plasticine figures—only to be turned into photographs. The resulting prints are vast. In one, a sausage-lipped dame with kinky curls smiles sweetly; in another, a menacing, fleshy-lipped thug sports sunglasses. Recalling British sculptor Rebecca Warren’s formless figurines of unfired clay, the squidgy faces seem to entice viewers to rearrange their features. “For me, Idols is a perfect combination of the different strands in my practice—sculpture, miniature and photography," says Abbas proudly.

It’s this mixing and moulding together of different mediums—not to mention themes—that is Abbas’ talent (and, sometimes, her pitfall). A cursory glance around Idols, and you think it is a badly planned group show. There are so many different styles, techniques and themes: What links them together? But the longer you look, the more you want to linger—and find out. To quote Jhaveri: “It was important for us to communicate Abbas’ wonderful range of formal strategies and scale while presenting a conceptually coherent exhibition." No easy feat.

Idols is on display till 22 December at Jhaveri Contemporary, 2, Krishna Niwas, 58A, Walkeshwar Road, Mumbai (23693639).

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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