Alone together in the cavernous stone hall of a Turkish bathhouse, a young Pakistani woman is scrubbing the naked body of a white woman who is lying on top of a marble slab. Wearing a navy-colored shirt, denim miniskirt, nylon stockings and black ankle-boots, the washer is Hamra Abbas, and the woman before her seems oblivious to her existence. The scene, set in the Bey Hamam bathhouse in Thessaloniki, Greece, is part of her series of nine photographs, “Paradise Bath” (2009). Invited to the 2009 Thessaloniki Biennale, Abbas made “Paradise Bath” in response to the city’s history and culture. She was immediately drawn to the Bey Hamam—the first Ottoman bathhouse in Thessaloniki, built in 1444 and an important Islamic historical site in Greece—and spent months learning the practices of hamam, or ritual cleansing, to prepare for the performance that formed the basis for these photographs.
The images play on the archetypal 19th-century Orientalist paintings that proliferated during the French Empire; many of these works portrayed “the Orient” as an exotic, colorful and sensual region. And yet female nudes were often portrayed as more European than Middle Eastern or African in appearance, such as in the French Neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ The Turkish Bath (1862). “The hamam is an iconic image,” Abbas explained in an email to ArtAsiaPacific in late August. She describes her presence, in the role of the washerwoman, as symbolizing an “absence” that transforms the familiarity of the stereotypical hamam—a representation, perhaps, of the non-European aspects that are conspicuously absent in the female nudes of many Orientalist paintings. “I am not directly speaking about race, memory or power, because those elements are already present in the image and location,” the artist says. For her, “Paradise Bath” redirects the inherent energy of popular iconography and reframes it so that multiple readings can emerge, which, she adds, are the key elements in her overall practice.
Whether living in Pakistan, Germany or the United States, Abbas draws on what she finds in each location as inspiration. Spanning painting, video, sculpture, sound, performance and installation, the subject matter of her work ranges from everyday settings to religious rituals and the sexual iconography of the Kama Sutra. Born in Kuwait in 1976, Abbas spent her formative years in Lahore, Pakistan. As Kuwait became embroiled in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) as an ally of Iraq, her parents moved the family back to Pakistan in 1985. From an early age, Abbas knew she wanted to pursue art. “I did not have any choice, because I wasn’t good at anything else,” she recalls. After graduating from the sculpture department at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1999, she stayed on to pursue a master’s degree that focused on the contemporary art history of the Subcontinent. “Learning about the subject was a vital part of the curriculum,” she says. This interest in cultural history laid the groundwork for all the work she has made since.
Abbas’ experiences of cultural dislocation have been equally influential. In 2003, she was awarded the German Academic Exchange Service scholarship and moved to Berlin to study at the Universität der Künste, where she also lectured on contemporary miniature painting before returning to Pakistan in 2006. “Moving to Berlin was the first time I had left Pakistan on my own, and being completely unfamiliar with the language and culture made for a challenging interaction at every step of the way,” recalls Abbas. The language barrier often led to misunderstandings during her professors’ and classmates’ critiques of her work. “I was unable to practice sculpture for a long time in Berlin, even though it had been my main choice of expression in Pakistan. This was mainly due to the lack of studio facilities, which I always had easy access to in the past.” Instead, she focused on mediums such as miniature painting and digital imaging, creating works such as First Lesson of a Foreign Country (2003), an installation combining portraits and audio recordings of seven immigrants—six Indian scientists and the artist herself—as they learn German in Leipzig. “At that time, practicing miniature painting was most preferable, because I could at least continue making work without having much space or resources. Other than painting, I was mostly working on collages and digital works,” she says. “Sculpture reappeared in my practice when I moved to Islamabad in 2006.”
One exception was “Lessons on Love” (2004), a set of life-size works depicting the sexual embrace of a male and female, which she created while in Berlin. The sculptures, made of unfired clay, are based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra (which loosely translates as “Lessons of Love”), and in particular, on an image that shows a man and a woman seated in a howdah—a canopied carriage mounted on horseback—in coitus while in the middle of a hunting scene. The Kama Sutra, an ancient Hindu text believed to have been compiled in the second century CE, proclaims hunting to be one of the important social arts, and that without mastering this activity one cannot achieve aesthetic and sexual pleasure. The one-ton clay sculptures, with their muted expressions, seem captured in stone rather than in the throes of love. By transforming the ancient illustrations into life-size sculptures, Abbas makes a wry comment on the paradoxical relationship between sex and violence.
Abbas revisited “Lessons on Love” two years later in Islamabad, where she became a lecturer at the National College of Arts’ Rawalpindi campus. Due to participate in the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, she created three new sets of male and female figures in brightly colored Plasticine, but she explains that the use of this medium was by force of necessity. Prior to the show, she had made two new clay figures, but they could not be transported to Istanbul due to the Biennial’s lack of a sufficient shipping budget. As a result, the artist faced the challenge of completing the project in Istanbul in limited time. “I had to construct three large sculptures, and so I used Plasticine to expedite the process,” she says.
“Everything you do in art is broken down into reason. I must admit that finished works are often directly linked to pragmatic concerns and limitations.” The use of brightly colored Plasticine, typically known as a brand of children’s modeling clay, injects the later version of “Lessons on Love” with connotations of playfulness and amusement, further emphasizing the awkward conflation of hunting and sex.
After several years of living in Berlin and traveling to other countries, her return to Pakistan presented her with an unexpected revelation. “One often reads about artists returning to their country of origin after years living in Europe or the US to find that they are unable to relate with things anymore,” says Abbas. “For me, moving back to Pakistan was not as problematic. In fact, it was much needed, because in terms of work it became my most productive period.” In the two years that she spent in Islamabad, she visited madrassas (Islamic seminaries) and places of religious importance in Pakistan. Themes of belief and ritual became pivotal in the artist’s installations, such as Read (2007) and In This Is a Sign for Those Who Reflect (2009). As with the Orientalist hamam depictions in Paradise Bath, Abbas’ focus was to reinterpret everyday iconic imageries of Islam. “The notion of the ‘everyday’ is often mistaken as being synonymous with ordinariness,” Abbas says, “but in reality, it is suffused with history, ideology and other evocative subtexts.”
Read is an installation of concentric C-shaped wooden structures suspended at eye level and containing speakers that play the sound of children reading and memorizing verses of the Quran—the standard method of learning in Pakistan’s madrassas. The cacophony of their voices is not the orderly harmony that one might expect of a scholastic regimen. Here the madrassas, which since the 9/11 attacks have often been portrayed in the Western media as training grounds for extremist indoctrination, are presented in a humanist light: the boisterous students are like any other group of children in the world.
Meanwhile, for the installation In This Is a Sign for Those Who Reflect, named after a passage from the Quran and inspired by Abbas’ attendances at zikr, or Sufi meditation sessions, viewers were invited to put on headphones and walk through a narrow passageway between two large, white, block-like walls, listening to recordings of people’s breathings during such sessions. The walls slide inward and outward in time with the breathing. According to Abbas, the installation, which was commissioned for the 2009 Sharjah Biennial and subsequently won the festival’s jury prize, aims “to recreate elements of a sensory experience” for viewers to imagine the power of many people’s minds synchronizing to a single idea or belief.
Abbas is adamant that pieces such asRead and In This Is a Sign are representations of what she experienced through her research and are not meant as a lecture on the topic of Islam. “I find it unsettling sometimes to see people passing themselves off as ‘cultural experts’ after fleeting encounters with Muslim societies, especially when it comes to matters of religious sensitivity.” But though she has lived with and worked on each of these projects over a period of months, and even years, Abbas sees them as being much more about her reactions to Islam, rather than her knowledge of it: “I am not an expert myself. However, I do share a close existential relationship with Islam along with all the complexities that it entails. So it is at that level that I am able to engage and empathize with matters of belief, but refrain from strong value judgments in my work.”
The reinvigoration of Abbas’ work came in stark contrast with the building tension in Pakistan during her stay in Islamabad, stemming from the ongoing war between the Pakistani military and Taliban-led Islamic militants in the northwest region bordering with Afghanistan, as well as the most severe energy crisis in the country’s history, which continues to hamper its economic development and political stability. When asked whether the political tension had any effect on her or her work, Abbas described the sense of reward that comes with persevering to make art under challenging conditions.
“In Islamabad, I had access to large studios and extra help, but interestingly, no electricity for the most part due to the power shortages. It was at that moment that I realized the value of mobile phones—they also work as flashlights! So during many such blackouts on humid summer evenings, the mobile phone was my main companion at work, but then again, so were a million mosquitoes.” Despite some of its adverse conditions, Pakistan is where she “feels at home” and claims to share a strong “familiarity and intimacy.” “That is not to belittle the possibilities of finding inspiration in novel places, which is something unique in itself,” she adds, “but once you arrive at a comfort zone, you automatically begin to embrace the wider environment with greater facility.”
In her most recent works, Abbas continues to address the theme of love and its paradoxical relationship to war.Love Yourself (2009) is an installation of red, yellow, green and blue silicone sculptures, smooth, translucent and obvious emulations of dildos, vibrators and other sex toys. There are two neon signs on the walls behind the installation: one showing an outline of a woman’s legs in a sexually suggestive pose and the other spelling out “as good as the real thing.” The artist explains: “The inspiration for Love Yourself derived from my visit to the Beate Uhse Erotic Museum, which was around the corner from where I used to study in Berlin.” It was there that she learned of the German sex toy company Fun Factory and its slogan, “Love Yourself.” It made her smile, she says, “because I thought, ‘Love Yourself’ was highly charged, both sexually and politically.” At first glance, the assortment of colorful dildos and neon signs seem to personify the uplifting tone of the Fun Factory slogan. But upon closer observation, it becomes evident that the sex toys are in fact toy-like fighter jets, missiles, bombs and bullets, challenging viewers to reconsider symbols of violence as things that have been transformed into objects of pleasure and fetishism.
Another of Abbas’ recent projects, Why Do Fake Hands Not Clap (2010), is also based on a single phrase, albeit one of her own making. “The question ‘Why do fake hands not clap’ formed in my mind long before the work. I made the piece almost as a visual consolidation of the phrase,” says Abbas. The work consists of 12 sets of ceramic hands, modeled on Abbas’ own and mounted on a machine that makes them clap continuously. An accompanying video shows the hands being chipped and broken as they hit each other. “The clapping produces an eerie soundtrack, which represents the destructive impulses cloaked in the act of collective approval,” Abbas explains. “The sound is not one of applause and yet it is created by the very act of applause. It is this disconnect that produces a sense of anxiety.”
Both Love Yourself and Why Do Fake Hands Not Clap were conceived after her move to the US two years ago, when Abbas followed her husband to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his PhD program at Harvard University. Since the end of September, Abbas has been based in New York, where she is currently an artist-in-residence at the Triangle Arts Association. She continues to exhibit internationally, and having been awarded the Abraaj Capital Art Prize this year she will travel to Dubai to present new work in March 2011.
However, through the residency, which marks her first long-term stay in New York, Abbas looks forward to working on several new projects that focus on her life in the US. She has just completed “Cityscapes” (2010), a series of panoramic photographs in which the Istanbul cityscape is stripped of its history and religious character through the removal of the skyline’s minarets—a response to a November 2009 referendum in Switzerland that approved a ban on the construction of new minarets in the country. She will continue the project in New York, she says. This work is particularly timely given the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. “I was surprised to learn that the Islamic center plans to house art studios and hold cultural events, including exhibitions, as part of their program,” she says. “So it is unfortunate how such events are turned into spectacles and, in the process, cast a shadow on the wider environment.” Nonetheless, Abbas is not seeking to engage with this particular issue. The second installment of “Cityscapes” will feature different subject matter and will be realized in a different size and medium. “It started as an expression of my engagement with a place, critically and otherwise. I’m looking forward to this project, because it allows me to directly reference my experience of the space that I now call home.”
Abbas’ enthusiasm for her new life in the US comes at a time when her homeland, Pakistan, faces the worst devastation in its history. Since July, heavy monsoon rains have flooded one fifth of the country’s territory and displaced an estimated two million people. “The loss of human life and the scale of devastation is heart-rending,” Abbas says. “Pakistan was already in great turmoil and now this calamity makes the situation even more precarious. The government has lost all credibility and is impotent in the face of current challenges. If things are not handled with care, sensitivity and expertise, I am afraid we may never recover.” Nevertheless, Abbas remains optimistic, preferring to see the tragedy as “the best time for the nation to emerge” and “an opportunity to forge alternative ways of managing the affairs” of Pakistan. “In short,” she adds, “I fear for the worst, but I am hoping for the best.”