The Canvas Gallery exhibited recent artwork by Hamra Abbas at the 2019 edition of Art Dubai. She was one of the 10 artists participating in Art Dubai’s new gallery feature, Bawwaba (Arabic for ‘gateway’). Bawwaba aims to give visitors a curated reading of current artistic developments in what has become known in transnational and post-colonial studies as the global South.
Exploring the symbolic significance of the Heavenly Garden, Abbas’s art, Gardens In Which Rivers Flow: Plastic Flowers And Everyday Waterfalls, the title of a series of marble sculptures, was created in the intricate marble inlay technique of parchin kari (inlaid pietra dura — a technique of incrustation of stones). The extraordinary ornamentation of the Taj Mahal, centralising on the theme of Heavenly Gardens, highlights the zenith of parchin kari. Scholars have likened this to breathing divine essence into the man-made structure. Abbas derives her metaphors from such exquisitely fine translucent imagery of organic vegetal forms that weave rhythmically through the rigid density of the marble.
Straddling between the conventional and the contemporary she divides her artwork into two series. While the first series titled ‘Flowers: Gardens Of Paradise’ mimic the traditional Mughal imagery and inlay patterns, the second one titled ‘Everyday Waterfalls’ is unabashedly abstract and pop in orientation. As an artist, Abbas courts traditional art practices, such as miniature painting, stained glass mosaic work and now parchin kari, with the attitude of a professional, but the actual meat is in her contemporary creations. Here is where she works like a free spirit and it is this creative liberty that peppers her art with singularity.
Hamra Abbas sources the traditional art of marble inlay (parchin kari) to build contemporary metaphors that redefine the Heavenly Garden philosophy of beauty, perfection and harmony
Initially focusing on the Heavenly Garden philosophy of paradise and bounding herself to the complexities of parchin kari, the most distinctive characteristic of Mughal architecture, Abbas creates vegetal and floral tiles that personify gardens of paradise. But she eventually comes into her own with contemporary articulations in the ‘Everyday Waterfalls’ series. Inflected with her particular brand of quirky humour, the pop art creations appear as earthly realities of the utopian Islamic garden culture of beauty, perfection and harmony. Her consumerist imagery reflects today’s socio-cultural mindset, where desire for the material and the tangible is the mantra for serenity and happiness rather than aspirations for the ideal and sublime. Her inlaid everyday objects are visually attractive and their commonplace prettiness gives parchin kari a very contemporary context.
Historian of Islamic art and architecture Dede Fairchild Ruggles reasons that gardens and landscapes are elusive subjects, positioned in both space and time, yet belonging to neither one exclusively. The commonly understood concept of Heavenly Gardens relates to the spiritual peace and harmony of man’s primordial state. But in Islam the phrase most often used is ‘Gardens underneath which rivers flow’ which Abbas refers to. On one level, this evokes the literal image of water flowing under the pathways in order to irrigate the flowerbeds. But on a more profound level it suggests the nurturing of the ‘garden within’ by the ever-flowing waters of the spirit, which purify the soul.
Distinguished commentator on Islamic art Titus Burckhardt wrote that the things of this world are not ends in themselves. The importance of sacred art lies in this truth. If we see the Islamic Garden as an open-air sacred art, the content, form and symbolic language of this art all combine to remind one of the eternal invisible realities that lie beneath outward appearances.
Hamra Abbas’s artworks were displayed at the 2019 edition of Art Dubai from March 19 to March 23, 2019
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2019