Hamra Abbas

20 Nov – 22 Dec 2012

Jhaveri Contemporary is pleased to present 'Idols', an exhibition by Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas. The artist’s Indian solo debut will include God Grows on Trees (2008); It Was a Little Demon (2008); Paper Plates (2008); Battle Scenes (2006); and the series Idols (2012), an ongoing work.

Abbas’ practice is impressively varied – her aesthetic strategies are as diverse as her subject matter – and she works at both miniature and monumental scales, often simultaneously, with abstract forms, super-realistic imagery and works made in a more cartoonish, Pop vein; a nod to artists Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami whom she has acknowledged as influences.

This exhibition considers Abbas’ approach to portraiture, along with the themes of home, displacement and ‘the everyday’ that have recurred across her practice over time. In doing so, it hopes to suggest some of the wonderful range in formal strategies and scale that the artist is known for. 

The inner walls of the gallery present neatly ordered rows of 99 portraits of children, rendered realistically by the artist in a miniature scale and drawing on traditional miniature techniques. Informed by Abbas’ visits to madrassahs in Pakistan, the little faces are painted so faithfully, and so exquisitely, it’s hard to believe that they are not prints. Only close inspection reveals Abbas’ masterful draughtsmanship. The individuality of 99 children remains undiminished: these are children first, education and religion aside, prayer caps and hijabs notwithstanding. Aligning the current interest in madrassahs with the Orientalist painters’ fascination with the harem in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Abbas rejects such eroticized readings to communicate instead the universality of childhood. 

Idols from Abbas everyday life in Cambridge reveal her extraordinary handling of both sculpture and photography. Glossy, photographic prints of three-dimensional faces in Plasticine, modeled in turn on photographs taken by the artist, each idol is set against a uniform grey background, his/her anonymity at once exaggerated and reduced. Who are these people? Is this fact or fiction? Why do these faces dwarf us? The miniature scale (two inches tall) at which these sculptures were made is betrayed only by traces of Hamra’s fingerprints. 

Abbas turns her lens to Indian history and the cosmopolitanism of London in Battle Scenes. Modeled on a pair of miniature paintings from The Akbarnama (c.1590), Hamra’s animation takes as its subject visitors at various London parks. Set against a black background and following the diptych format and compositional arrangement of the original paintings, each figure in Abbas’ contemporary army is depicted in the stance of a medieval warrior – wielding a sword, firing an arrow or leading a charge on horseback. Alas, the figures go nowhere: held in mid-motion, with jerky movements, they ‘represent the acts of war as a ludicrous dance’.

In 'Idols', we celebrate as Abbas does with her practice, the mastery of craft techniques. It Was a Little Demon offers a gentle segue into the main exhibition space, where miniature and monumental portraiture come face to face. A wall-mounted sculpture of delicate house-like structures, this work was laboriously constructed from thousands of tiny strips of paper (much like Paper Plates from the same period, formed of elaborate and highly decorative Islamic patterns.) Look again, and you’ll see that each strip of paper is printed with the word ‘love’. This is, after all, a meditation on the fragility of home and human relationships. 

Hamra Abbas was born in Kuwait in 1976 and lives and works between Lahore and Boston. She is 2011 winner of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, and was awarded a Jury prize at the Sharjah Biennial 9. Her work has been included in Asian Art Biennial, Taiwan (2011); the International Artist’s Workshop of Thessaloniki Biennial and International Incheon Women Artists Biennale (2009); Guangzou Triennial (2008); Istanbul Biennial (2007); the Biennale of Sydney (2006); and the Cetinje Biennial (2004). Her work has been exhibited at Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; V&A Museum, London; Asia Society Museum, New York; ARTIUM de Álava, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Manchester Art Gallery, UK; REDCAT, Los Angeles.

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