Hamra Abbas works in a variety of media including sculpture, painting, photography, stained glass, neon, and video. She lived and worked at the Gardner Museum for four weeks in the summer of. She spent many hours in the galleries soaking up the atmosphere and taking pictures. Dr. Anne-Marie Eze showed Abbas books and manuscripts from the collection including several commisioni, which were featured in a special exhibit, Illuminating the Serenissima: Books of the Republic of Venice. Most of the time, however, the artist could be found in the archives, where she grew fascinated with Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. Abbas was particularly captivated by Gardner’s travel albums from Egypt and the Holy Land from 1874 and Gardner’s trip from Singapore to Venice between 1883-1884. Abbas read correspondence, looked at photographs, and spent time perusing Gardner’s personal recipe book and her watercolors. Other materials of interest included Gardner’s art history notes from a class she attended at Harvard in 1883, her will, the meticulous list of instructions Gardner wrote for her funeral, and files on the 1992 theft.
Abbas was also drawn to Gardner’s interest in fabric. The artist toured the galleries with textile conservator Tess Fredette and learned about various pieces in the collection. They spoke about several textile preservation and refurbishment projects that had been completed over the years, including the Yellow Room project in 2010. In the Conservation Lab, Fredette showed Abbas photographs, records, and an assortment of fabrics, decorative trims, and cords from the Yellow Room. These included the small example of the original 18th century silk fabric that Gardner used in 1902, the cotton fabric that replaced it in 1974, and the carefully replicated silk fabric that has recently been installed. They were joined by Steve Alphonse, an inspiring artist and student in the YouthBuild program, who spent the day job-shadowing Abbas.
Hamra Abbas’ works draw upon widely accepted traditions, often in a playful manner. By appropriating culturally rich imagery and iconography, and transforming them into works that can be experienced spatially and temporally, she builds new platforms from which to view notions of cultural ownership, tradition, and exchange. Religion, sexuality, and power are recurring themes in her practice. On a visit home to her parent’s house in Lahore, the artist spotted a small, dusty, keepsake—a plaster cast of the spectacular silk and gold curtain (kiswa) covering the entrance to the Kaaba, the Islamic holy site in Mecca. She noticed similar happenings of neglected relics as she visited other friends and family and started photographing them. Abbas used the photograph of the kiswa to create Wall Hanging I in 2013 for the Façade art space on the outside of the Museum. “I like to take a thing out of context, and put it in a new context. It gives it more weight,” Abbas said.
Hamra Abbas (b. 1976, Kuwait) is the 2011 winner of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize and was awarded a Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennial 9: Provisions for the Future. Her work has been included in 2011 Asian Art Biennial, Taiwan; Aluminium, 4th International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Baku, Azerbaijan; the International Artist’s Workshop of the 2nd Thessaloniki Biennial; the 2nd International Incheon Women Artists Biennale, Korea (2009); the Guangzhou Triennial; the 10th Istanbul Biennial; the Biennale of Sydney; and the Cetinje Biennial. She has had exhibitions at Canvas Gallery, Karachi; Lawrie Shabibi, Dubai; Museo Colecciones ICO, Madrid; Guangdong Times Museumin Guangzhou, China; the V&A Museum, London; ARTIUM de Álava, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; ifa Gallery, Berlin; the Manchester Art Gallery, UK; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; the Asia Society Museum, New York; the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute; and at REDCAT, LA; Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon. She lives and works in Lahore.